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Low-Hanging Fruit

By Ronald K. Kamdem, None

One of the first things every Harvard freshmen sees when they walk into their room is a list of the most famous alumni who were also housed in that room. From Ralph W. Emerson, class of 1821, to Natalie Portman ’03, these lists are full of people who have been very successful in very different career paths. It’s an opportunity for one to see what others who have been in your shoes have accomplished.

The main goal of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) is “to establish a mutually beneficial relationship between Harvard University and its alumni.” From the reunions planned throughout the year, to the post.harvard database with e-mail and other information about graduates, the Harvard Alumni Network is not only well-connected, but also is easily accessible to current students. Through information gathering and data collection, HAA is able to bridge the gap between countless generations of Harvard students.

An alumni network is obviously economically beneficial for the college because good relations with alumni presumably lead to more donations, but there are also many other benefits Harvard students receive from our alumni network. Anyone who has done e-recruiting will attest that one of the pieces of information given in a job description is whether or not the campus recruiter is a Harvard alum. It is apparent that the alumni network is a market place where alumni provide opportunities and guidance, and students provide an opportunity for alumni to feel nostalgic and take pride in giving back.

Most colleges in the U.S. provide some form of alumni registry. Whether colleges are trying to provide a community for generations of graduates or simply out to increase donations, alumni networks are integral to universities. Therefore, it seems puzzling that high schools, specifically underprivileged high schools, have not been able to capitalize on these networking opportunities between students and alumni when it seems like they could benefit immensely. Creating an alumni registry is probably not a top priority of a school in dire need of major restructuring, but maybe it should be.

In its most basic form, an alumni registry is just data that is collected and aggregated. There is no reason why one employee working school hours (8 a.m. to 3 p.m.) five days a week should not be able to collect such information. This task can be delegated to current employees if needed, to avoid having to hire someone else. Even taking into account some practical issues—such as low response rates caused by anything from laziness to a dysfunctional household—the benefits having an alumni registry are greater than the work that goes into actually creating them. This should be a no brainer for all high schools.

Beyond the economic justification for alumni networks, there are many unquantifiable and intangible benefits to be gained from an alumni network, especially at an underprivileged high school. Kids will have access to a set of role models that can relate to their experiences. What better way to motivate kids about their future then by having them interact with people who have graduated from their school and are living successful lives? Ideally, alumni can give back by coming to the school and interacting with students. But this cannot happen unless the school retains some form of communication with its graduates.

The practical challenges of getting information from students are many, especially at a school with underprivileged kids. However, these problems can be mitigated through ingenious ways of maximizing response rates, such as personal e-mails, providing incentives for students, or spamming them through letters and e-mails.

Revamping the education system in the U.S. is going to take more than the testing and accountability mandates under No Child Left Behind. Actions such as restructuring schools, hiring new teachers, or building new classrooms are all things that cost a lot of money when it comes to improving the standards of schools. But building an alumni registry and connecting generations of students is one of the low hanging fruits that can be afforded by even the poorest of schools.

So as we welcome our alumni back during Commencement, let us take a moment to enjoy this opportunity to bring the past and the present together. Hopefully one day, all of the high schools in the U.S. will have this opportunity to see the past come to life.

Ronald K. Kamdem ’10, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House.

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