Part of the place from Day One

Tim Burt, Hatfield College, Durham University, UK

My son spent his teenage years living in a collegiate environment (Hatfield College, Durham). In time he played soccer for the college and worked in the bar. So, when he went to a non-collegiate university (not feeling he could stay at Durham – there was only one college to join after all), he knew what he wanted from a student community and applied to a traditional hall of residence with that hope in mind. He was not disappointed – until the end of his first year came. He and some friends went to the warden of the hall and asked if they might remain members: they were very willing to pay their membership dues and just wanted the chance to keep playing sport for the hall. The warden turned them down flat: they had had their chance and must now move on and make way for others. They kept together and formed what was effectively an alumni soccer team which still exists today, more than a decade on.

It has always struck me that the warden had pure gold in her hand and chose to let it slip through her fingers. What price continued loyalty and input to the student community from older, more experienced members? And, in due course, what price for the alumni engagement that inevitably follows?

No doubt, colleges differ in the way they deal with membership and the continued links with those who have moved on. In my experience (Durham, Oxford, Cambridge), membership starts from Day 1 (even before that) and lasts a lifetime. From the very point of filling in the application form, students start to see themselves within the community of their choice. Certainly, once they gain a place, the large majority engage enthusiastically and become part of the community pretty quickly. Of course, this can only happen if there is a continuing engagement from those already there, not just a few students who run the student organisation and form a welcoming committee, but from the much larger numbers, both resident and non-resident, who continue to be involved, running sports clubs and societies or just remaining part of the place. We take it for granted that college membership continues throughout the student’s time at Durham and it seems to me that very often we see just as much of the non-residents as we do the residents! Of course, not everyone will want to stay engaged, but survey responses at Durham regularly indicate that 85% would choose their college again (whichever college that is) so the system seems to be working pretty well. How lucky we are to have a system that has this sort of ongoing support from our students. How careless to be offered the possibility and turn it down!

Ongoing membership leads seamlessly into enduring alumni commitment. Again, not everyone gets involved, many only coming back into the fold many years later. But college alumni are always there in spirit. Meet a Durham graduate and the first question is inevitably: “Which college?” not “Which department?” Alumni can be powerful allies when the going gets tough and they need to be taken seriously. No doubt some of their memories are rose-tinted but nevertheless they continue to recognise the strengths of the collegiate system and will protect them to the hilt. College graduates are inordinately successful in their careers and would not wax lyrical over the benefits of having colleges if they did not believe in them. We can take great comfort from their ongoing support, not necessarily uncritical but reliable nevertheless. And of course, loyal alumni feed back into college in so many ways, not just financial. We find involvement in our careers-focused work to be especially fruitful, helping current students reflect on their personal development and look forward to the world of work. Recent graduates can be as useful as the seasoned professional, so it gives room for a wide range of contributions and can get the younger graduates involved almost as soon as they start their own careers.

We expect that the alumni theme will be an important one at the Collegiate Way conference and there, no doubt, plenty of good practice to share among us. The conference’s registered delegates include alumni, both local and from overseas, and we look forward to sharing their thoughts and experiences.

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