African visitor taps into York’s alumni expertise

On June 29, Linda Mkhize hurried across a deserted Keele campus, briefcase in tow, for an 11am appointment. It was the Friday before the first long weekend of the summer and the blue sky above warmed her winter-chilled bones. She was determined to be on time, after journeying all the way from Cape Town, South Africa, to talk to James Allan, director of York’s Alumni Office.

Mkhize, an alumni relations officer at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), came to Toronto on a two-week mission to learn as much as she could about alumni databases and Web sites. Where she comes from, the alumni culture is just developing. Hired a year ago to develop the alumni database and maintain the Web portal at the University of the Western Cape, she has had to start from scratch. Until now, Western Cape – like most universities in South Africa – hasn’t made it a priority to keep in touch with alumni.

Left: Linda Mkhize (centre) with James Allan and Jody Dailey

"The alumni culture is just starting in the whole of South Africa," says Mkhize, a trained and experienced Web design and information systems administrator. Western Cape was one of the first universities in the country to set up an alumni office and it did so only three years ago. The university has recognized that loyal alumni can do wonders for your reputation and be a rich source of support. Western Cape, like York, began in 1959, accepting its first students in 1960.

Mkhize started her alumni database with only 400 alumni records collected at Western Cape’s first homecoming in June 2006. The list has continued to grow as she and her colleagues host new alumni chapter meetings across the land. Back in Cape Town, she posts current news and events to "keep our alumni on the loop".

But there’s much to learn. And when her boss said he’d pay travel expenses for Mkhize and her colleagues to meet and pick the brains of more experienced alumni relations personnel, she surfed the Internet, discovered the York Alumni Web page and contacted Allan to request a meeting. "I was very impressed by the alumni link that is put first on the York University Web site," she said in an e-mail detailing her visit to Toronto. "It was easy for me to get to the information that I needed in less than three clicks. And I was deeply drawn to the publications featured in the alumni section which means York alumni are well kept on the loop with what is happening with their alma mater."

When they met, Allan spent two hours sharing information with Mkhize about alumni services, affinity programs and communications. After a two-hour working lunch, the African visitor met for a further two hours with Jody Dailey, director, Advancement Services, to talk about databases and business processes, and Lindsay Reid, manager of alumni stewardship, to talk about the importance of alumni events and building powerful personal relationships with key alumni.

"My meetings were very useful," said Mkhize. "I gained a lot of knowledge on running alumni relations at York U from James. I have good recommendations for UWC on how to handle and prioritize requests when dealing with the central database. I got this information from Jody. Lindsay helped me a lot with the information on planning alumni events."

The day of her appointments, Mkhize made the trek from downtown Toronto to York by subway and bus, determined to get a sense of this North American city. It was her first time away from home. "You know what I noticed? Everybody says, ‘Take care.’ It gives me a warm feeling in my heart."

Mkhize presents her report – which also includes notes about meetings with alumni personnel at three other Toronto-area universities – to her boss this week. She plans to stay in touch with Allan, Dailey and Reid and let them know what Western Cape does with the recommendations in her report that are based on their meetings.

"I would love to stay in touch with York people even beyond this feedback,"  said Mkhize.

By Martha Tancock, York communications officer