Campus Community / People of SU
Written by Kristen Kirst and Allison Nitch
October 25, 2021
Image credit: Alumni Association & Marissa Leitch (graphic)
Q: Seattle U’s alumni community is comprised of alumni living locally, regionally, across the country and world. How does the SU Alumni Association grow and evolve with that community? What have been or will be important guides and adaptations for the SUAA in its work with this ever-growing, rapidly changing community?
Whitlock Baker: A key focus for us this year and in the future is to center our community’s voices in engagement work. We want to create opportunities for ongoing, authentic dialogue between SUAA, alumni and students to understand what the community expects from their alumni association and to build programming that supports and enriches our alumni throughout their lives—at whatever stage they are in.
Q: What are some key goals you hope to achieve for the SUAA during your tenure?
Whitlock Baker: The following are developing as areas of focus:
1) Expanding engagement practices that allow all alumni to feel they belong and are welcomed by SUAA.
2) Encouraging alumni to take action on behalf of SU by creating easy ways for them to mentor or network with students and other alumni, meet with a prospective student, give philanthropically, participate in an event that is meaningful, etc.
3) Leveraging our incredible network of SU volunteers to help us create goals and then support them.
4) Connecting with current students early and often, so they know the value of an engaged alumni community and seek to participate in it after they graduate.
Q: What are the SUAA’s highest priorities for the next year?
Whitlock Baker: While we’re still developing our updated priorities, I know we will want to purposefully align our work with the SU Strategic Directions and LIFT SU—along with ensuring that alumni are involved in supporting these new paths for our university. We will introduce President Peñalver to alumni in Seattle and on the road. We will also seek alumni input, develop collaborative partnerships across campus to reach alumni more efficiently and support students through alumni connection and engagement. We’re looking forward to launching Seattle University’s first crowdfunding program and having another stellar SU Gives day.
Q: Most recently, you’ve focused your work on how to create authentic engagement with alumni who identify as Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). How will SUAA put that into practice?
Whitlock Baker: I spent the last nine months of my time at the University of Washington working on a community-centric engagement initiative and learned so much from the experts who helped us understand how to center community in our work. I first learned about this process of centering community from Vu Le, who runs the blog Nonprofit AF and also created the organization Community-Centric Fundraising. This is important work being done right here in Seattle and it will change the focus and practice of philanthropy and alumni engagement. I’m really excited to bring my learning in this space to SU and thrilled to have resources like the Center for Community Engagement to help us achieve this work. Thinking about centering community and knowing that to do so, we need to develop authentic and reciprocal relationships with alumni—particularly those who don’t feel engaged or a sense of belonging—has absolutely changed how I do my work.
Q: Since digital networks have taught us that alumni can join us from anywhere and anytime, are regional hub models going to be obsolete? Anything new being introduced?
Whitlock Baker: The interesting thing about digital engagement is that even though anyone can join from anywhere, there was a saturation of digital events during the pandemic. So, we didn’t see huge attendance jumps across the board. I think we have a great opportunity to create more hybrid events, where folks can attend in-person or online, but I don’t think a digital experience will fully replace the ability to gather in person. The regional and affinity volunteer groups are so important in keeping alumni connected and engaged; they will always be critical partners. We’re excited to continue exploring how we can harness digital methods of engagement to reach more alumni across the globe. There are great examples of this working well throughout the industry and we’ll be ready with new methods to meet the demands.
Q: You are stepping into this role after more than 18 months of virtual activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What are some lessons you learned personally and professionally from that historic time that you want to implement?
Whitlock Baker: This has been a really hard time for all of us and we need to continue to recognize that. We are also still in a pandemic and though we are trying to go back to a new normal, we’re exhausted and worried. I’ve learned many things during the last two years and one of the most important points is to create and sustain a healthy culture in the workplace. We need to take care of our teams, support them where they are in their lives and do whatever we can to encourage work-life balance. This is the most critical thing I’ve learned, because a happy and healthy team will result in positive and exciting engagement work.
Q: What message do you have for current students who are “alumni-in-training"?
Whitlock Baker: If you have questions about life after graduation, a particular career path or just want to meet someone who has similar career interests to you, login to Redhawk Landing. It’s an easy way to find alumni who want to connect with students (and other alumni) and support your post-graduate life.
Q: Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)?
Whitlock Baker: You are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience and the Black Experience, edited by Tarana Burke and Brene Brown. My mentor and coach, Aiko Bethea, has a beautiful essay in it. (Aiko’s two-part podcast on Creating Transformative Cultures on Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast is a must listen for all of us.) Also, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. I’m a sucker for YA [Young Adult fiction].
Q: What’s your favorite thing about gardening?
Whitlock Baker: My husband and I started a pandemic garden in 2020. I grew up on the 5th floor of a condo, so it’s truly shocking to me that all you have to do is put a seed in the dirt, water it and it grows into a plant that you can eat! I feel proud and kind of like a miracle has happened any time something I plant successfully grows.
“Let’s Get Back to Our Future” is this year’s theme for Homecoming. Seattle University’s Homecoming events are a great opportunity to meet Ellen, as well as re-engage and connect with other faculty, staff, current students and fellow alumni.
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