Leverage Your Alumni Network

The University of California at Santa Barbara is a unique campus, sandwiched between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Students surf behind the school. When they aren’t surfing on the water, students surf on land – there’s a dedicated skateboard lane running through the middle of campus and many students in it.

UCSB also has a unique way of bringing alumni to their students. During a career day event at UCSB where I was presenting, they showed short videos of alumni talking into their cellphone cameras about their careers and how they got started. The videos were unscripted and there was no fancy editing. Sometimes you could tell the person was holding up their phone as they talked. But the students were mesmerized.

Alumni are often an untapped resource for students. A lot of students don’t realize that their fellow alumni are eager to help them. Learning to leverage your alumni network not only helps land that first job out of college but also helps you advance your career later on.


Alumni volunteers assist students.

I’m seeing more alumni at the etiquette dinners where I’m presenting at universities across the country. Many donate their time to help students practice their networking and interviewing skills, as well as conversation skills, while they are dining.

Kurt Walsh, a principal at
ProTen Realty Group, a successful commercial real estate firm in Chicago, is an enthusiastic alumni mentor for his alma mater, Northwestern University. He has been very active with Northwestern for the last six years but involved sporadically over three decades.

Students are often a little nervous at these events, mixing with alumni and employers, but Walsh has a great rapport with them and his sense of humor puts them at ease. He said, “I care very much about helping undergrads maneuver through NU and beyond.”

Were there any Northwestern alum who helped him in his career?

“Yes, my business partner since 1995, Renee
Betzelos, who is also a double degree NU alum – Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences in 1982 and Kellogg in 1986,” said Walsh.


Alumni are active in recruiting. 

Walsh has also recruited from Northwestern, including one alumnus he trained and ultimately became partners with. “He’s a terrific broker and I just love the NU alum he married,” said Walsh. “And, he is going to have two of his three kids at NU in undergrad next year. Just a top-notch fellow, who I am proud to still call a friend.”


Which just goes to show, alumni are a lot like family.

InterTech Media, a pioneering tech firm in Stamford, Connecticut, hired many of its early tech talent from Ohio Wesleyan in Delaware, Ohio. Why recruit from a small school over 600 miles away?  Because InterTech’s Founder and CEO, Frank Murray, had been a mathematics major at Ohio Wesleyan and had great confidence in the training of other mathematics majors from there. 

Simply put, alumni who had a positive experience at a college or university like to recruit fellow alumni.


Seek out webinars and alumni mentoring.

Many universities offer professional development webinars for alumni. I’ve led webinars for alumni organizations at Georgetown University and the University of Minnesota on topics like How to Bypass Online Applications, How to Follow-up After Networking, and Table Manners for Business Meals.


Georgetown and Minnesota have dedicated career services staff for alumni, breaking that old myth that such resources are only for recent grads.

Many universities have alumni mentoring programs that connect students with alumni in their field. One such program at the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (COFANS) matches over 200 undergraduate students with alumni in their chosen field each year.


The mentors meet monthly over coffee or virtually by conference call with their assigned students to offer professional advice and answer questions. Some students even have an opportunity to job shadow their mentors.


Build your alumni network.

There are many opportunities to connect with alumni for job networking, recruiting or mentoring:

Contact your Alumni Office
Find out what resources are available to connect you directly with other alumni. Even if your school does not have an official alumni mentoring program, ask if the alumni office can refer you to potential alumni mentors in your field. Take advantage of webinars, lectures, or other training open to alumni.

Look for Local Alumni Clubs
Visit your college or university’s alumni website and look for a club or chapter near you. The larger the school, the more clubs it will have worldwide. When I moved to the New York area for a job, I didn’t know many people. My alma mater, the University of Iowa, had a local NY Metro Iowa Club that sponsored “Football Game Watches” with the other Big Ten universities. I made a lot of friends through those events, which helped me settle into my new city. Many universities have alumni chapters in international locations, too.


Go to Alumni Events

Don’t wait a decade for a reunion. College and university alumni clubs have events going on all the time. Besides “Game Watches,” University of Iowa’s NY Metro Iowa Club hosts networking events, walking tours, and other opportunities to meet fellow alumni. The alumni in that club range from recent graduates to retirees.


Connect with Alumni on LinkedIn
LinkedIn is great for connecting with alumni in your field, your location, or with a specific organization. Let’s say you have an interest in an organization and want to find if fellow alumni work there.

  1. Click on the Search box at the top of page and select “People” from the dropdown menu.
  2. A navigation bar with three boxes will appear near the top of the page. Select “All Filters.”
  3. From the “All Filters” menu, type in your target organization under “Company” and your college/university under “School.” Click “Apply.”
  4. From that, you should get a list of alumni that work for that organization.

Reach out with an invite on LinkedIn with a personalized message:


I am interested in connecting with fellow alumni from (college/university) and I would like to invite you to join my network.

Don’t overwhelm them with a pitch in your invite. Just take the opportunity to connect. If a person accepts your invite, start a conversation from there. Look at their profile and ask them a question based on something in their profile. Networking is all about building relationships.


Follow through with an attitude of gratitude.

I often hear from alumni volunteers who are disappointed after providing students with valuable leads and never getting a “thank you,” or any follow-up communication to let them know if the leads resulted in a job offer.

Fostering alumni relationships means showing gratitude. One of the biggest mistakes students make with alumni mentors is failing to follow up. If you get a referral from a fellow alumn  – whether you accepted the job, didn’t get an offer or passed on an offer – you owe that person an update.

Follow up with contacts made after an alumni event with a handwritten fold-over note, email, or LinkedIn invite: “I enjoyed meeting you at the alumni event. Let’s stay in touch.”


Reach out and reach back.

There’s an abundance of alumni who are enthusiastic to help  and many opportunities to bond. Reconnect with your alumni office and explore chapters and events near you. Also reach out to fellow alumni on LinkedIn.

Be sure to follow up and thank those who have helped you, no matter the outcome. And when you’re able, turn back and help other alumni in return.


About the Author

Callista Gould has spent over 11 years as a certified etiquette instructor, speaking at universities and businesses across the United States. Her new book, The Exceptional Professional: What You Need to Know to Grow Your Career, is an entertaining read, filled with true stories of etiquette triumphs and disasters in the world of business and nonprofits. She can be reached at cgould@cultureandmanners.com or on Twitter @MannersThatMove. She offers a free Etiquette Tip of the Week by email. Learn more at www.cultureandmanners.com.