When one hears the word convocation, a number of meanings or associations may come to mind. While many may associate the term with a ceremony that celebrates the academic journey on which a new freshman class is about to embark, convocation implies a totally different meaning in Tanzania, referring to its programmatic outreach to the alumni of a university. Put simply, Tanzanians understand convocation the way in which alumni relations is understood in the United States.
Though we may find this interpretation of convocation perplexing, Tanzanians, especially those at the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) in Morogoro, Tanzania, are in the process of trying to revitalize their convocation. SUA currently is at a crossroads with respect to its methodology of engaging alumni – extensive improvements are obvious and desired, but no clear strategy is being employed to facilitate that positive change. It’s for this reason that Mr. Andy Gurd, Chief Operating Officer at The Ohio State University Alumni Association, recently traveled to Morogoro to meet with administrators in an effort to assess SUA’s current alumni outreach programs and to offer practical recommendations to enhance alumni involvement in the future.
The Ohio State University, through the Office of International Programs in Agriculture in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, has been working closely with SUA since 2011 through the Innovative Agricultural Research Initiative, or iAGRI. The iAGRI project is a major food security project funded by USAID and seeks to improve SUA’s teaching and research capacity, as well as Tanzania’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security, and Cooperative’s (MAFC) linkages to international institutions. The project, currently in its third year, places Tanzanian graduate students at Ohio State and other U.S. land grant universities, in addition to facilitating collaborative agricultural research between SUA faculty and faculty from participating U.S. universities.
Mr. Gurd was introduced to SUA during a 2013 visit made to Ohio State by Dr. Peter Gillah, Deputy Vice Chancellor of Academic Programs, and Dr. Vedasto Muhikambele, Director of Research and Graduate Studies at SUA, as a part of their involvement with iAGRI. Both were interested in learning more about alumni relations and what valuable contributions an engaged alumni community could make to SUA. Since then SUA administrators, through the Executive Committee of Convocation (ECC), have begun to lay the groundwork for a more developed alumni relations strategy, with organizational support being provided by iAGRI personnel, especially Dr. David Kraybill, iAGRI Project Director, and Samantha Alvis, a Leland International Hunger Fellow.
“SUA wouldn’t be where it is right now in advancing its alumni relations strategy without the inputs from iAGRI,” shared Mr. Gurd. He explained how the iAGRI team has been proactive in gathering data and taking steps to foster a “mindset transformation” when it comes to reaching out to alumni. These efforts, Gurd hopes, will serve as an impetus for SUA officials to more fully develop an alumni framework.
Gurd added he had the fortune of meeting many SUA alumni during his visit to Tanzania who were eager to contribute, eager to get involved, but simply hadn’t been asked or offered the opportunity. This is something that is now changing.
While it may be difficult to conceptualize how Sokoine University of Agriculture, a 45 year old institution with 14,000 alumni can effectively engage in the breadth and depth of alumni engagement of Ohio State’s – a 145 year old institution boasting more than 500,000 alumni worldwide, Mr. Gurd says that the recipe for bolstering alumni support is the same everywhere.
“The general framework for engaging alumni is the same anywhere you go,” says Gurd. “It’s the tactics that vary depending on the location or institution, and simply involves building relationships.” He expands on this idea by explaining how at Ohio State athletic programs are used as a mechanism to initially involve and build support among alumni, and are intended to cultivate their support for research, teaching, and other academic initiatives at Ohio State over time. A similar approach could be employed at SUA, he says, leveraging SUA’s reputation as an academically rigorous institution to draw in SUA graduates from across different sectors and demographics.
Gurd also feels that his visit to SUA to provide insight into their alumni relations capacity holds a much deeper meaning than simply lending assistance. He specifically references Ohio State University’s official motto, Disciplina in civitatem, or “Education for Citizenship”, and explains how Ohio State’s work with SUA not only illustrates its pledge to global engagement, but also a commitment to inspire students and alumni alike to be good global citizens.
“It’s incredibly humbling,” admits Gurd. “Ohio State and SUA are alike in that they both emphasize that the institution is bigger than one person or department.” This underlying belief is what an effective alumni relations program - one that encourages alumni to give back to an entity that was so influential in their own lives and which will endure beyond their time - is built on.
The guidance that SUA received from Andy Gurd and the support for his involvement from the Ohio State Alumni Association will undoubtedly strengthen the effectiveness of iAGRI’s own mission to improve SUA’s capacity to train future generations of agricultural professionals. By creating and building a solid base of alumni support, SUA is also creating a professional network through which SUA students can connect with experts in their field, explore job opportunities, and forge lasting collaborative relationships.
“The role and importance of alumni relations at OSU is well recognized and through his experience and enthusiasm, Andy was able to energize SUA’s convocation team – a contribution that will help it achieve its goal of becoming a 21st century university,” explains Dr. Mark Erbaugh, Director of the Office of International Programs in Agriculture at Ohio State.
So as convocation at Ohio State creates a sense of anticipation for what lies ahead for the students beginning their higher education voyage, so too may the alumni association at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania experience a renewed sense of enthusiastic commitment from administrators, students, and alumni alike and an anticipation for the legacies that will endure.