The Power of Alumni Networks – Building Bridges Between the University, Its Graduates, and the World
Those of us who have graduated from some of the Western world’s most prestigious universities will no doubt be intimately acquainted with the concept of the alumni association. Fundamentally driven by the goodwill and voluntary support of graduates, an alumni association can be instrumental in supporting the university’s long-term strategic ambitions. It should be a sprawling, multigenerational, international family – an intersecting network of multilateral bridges between alumni and their distant student days, between current scholars and their future professional lives, between the University itself and the broader community that it serves. This is something I personally came to appreciate, having undertaken a joint degree MBA programme on both sides of the Atlantic, at LBS and Columbia. I realised, however, that these traditionally Western perceptions of what a university alumni club should be were still a largely unexplored concept in Russia. It was a gap that needed to be redressed; so, in the summer of 2014, together with an excellent team of enthusiastic, like-minded alumni, I embarked on a mission to do just that.
Progress has been swift. Since we formulated the initial concept two years ago, the St Petersburg State University (SPbSU) Alumni Association has become an expansive and highly-respected network, promoting and nurturing links between the University’s students, alumni and faculty. The Association has also led the University’s charitable fundraising initiatives, having recently spearheaded a new scholarship programme for graduate students. Thanks entirely to the generous support of our alumni, the Association has secured funding for 26 exceptional scholars this year. As President of the Alumni Association, I had the pleasure of returning to St. Petersburg last month for the programme’s official launch.
Our scholarship initiative is unique. Aimed exclusively at masters’ students with a demonstrated drive for undertaking fresh, considered and original research, the programme will partner each scholar with a supervisory ‘mentor’. Depending on the student’s interests, this could be an eminent academic, a renowned artist or a successful business leader. Our focus on fostering an ongoing, direct interaction between the scholars and their mentors is what distinguishes our initiative from any others currently undertaken in Russia. Furthermore, at 20,000 roubles per month for each student, the Association’s scholarship offers significantly more funding than its most well-known rival schemes.
This landmark success is just one of the fantastic developments that I was able to share with our UK-based alumni, during our first ever London reunion on Sunday 1st May. The highlight of the afternoon was the engaging main address, delivered by the renowned Russian cultural historian, writer and distinguished SPbSU alumnus, Lev Lurie. Weaving a captivating narrative, Lurie took us on a journey through the colourful and turbulent life of one of the great, underappreciated literary geniuses of the Soviet era – Sergei Dovlatov. From his carefree student days at SPbSU, through his formative years of national service in the penal colonies of the far north, all the way to his final self-imposed exile in New York City, Dovlatov’s personal biography is a compelling intercontinental odyssey – one that is bound to resonate with any Russian who, by whatever twist of fate, has come to make his or her home ex patria.
What struck me most in Lurie’s words was his assessment of the role of the University in later life. There is no way to escape the fact that, when it comes to academic and professional choices, our values are constantly evolving with every passing generation. This has especially been the case in Russia. The archetypes of ‘prestigious degrees’ that lead to ‘successful careers’ were not the same for our generation as they were for our parents, or will be for our children. Thus the young doctors and lawyers of yesteryear increasingly become the aspiring tech entrepreneurs of today. The most important quality that the University can teach us, therefore, has little to do with gaining an expert understanding of any one particular discipline or world outlook – rather, it is the readiness and willingness to constantly re-evaluate our knowledge and beliefs, to critique that which might have become extraneous and to absorb more of what has become beneficial. In short, it is the ability to be open to change and respond positively towards it, all throughout life.
It is perhaps no accident that our recent London reunion took place at Rossotrudnichestvo – the Russian House of Science and Culture, which aims to promote cultural understanding and cooperation between our two great countries. I believe that, in the current frosty political climate that has encircled Russia and the United Kingdom, the work of organisations like Rossotrudnichestvo is more important now than ever before. Culture and education are realms that should truly know no borders. In this spirit, the Alumni Association is constantly exploring new international horizons. The fact that, in London of all places, on the most important religious feast of the Russian Orthodox calendar, as many as 40 of our alumni were willing to come together and share their stories is testament to the global scope of education and the longstanding affinity that graduates will always have for their alma mater. The efforts of all our fellow alumni are essential to our ongoing mission, as we continue to grow the St Petersburg State University Alumni Association into a world-class organisation, worthy of the esteemed three-centuries-old institution whose name it bears.