Joanna Murray hasn’t been very involved with Boston College alumni groups since she graduated 13 years ago, but last month she found a reason to reconnect: garbage and debris at a city park.
Rake in hand, Murray turned out at Rogers Park here for her alma mater’s Alumni National Day of Service, which mobilized 31 alumni chapters nationwide in local community service projects. For her, the day marked an opportunity to build up much more than piles of bottles, cans and fallen branches.
“I’m just trying to find some fulfillment in my life,” Murray said during a break. “This gives me a feeling of being part of something meaningful.”
Alumni service days are fast becoming a rite of spring for colleges and their graduates across the country. At least 10 schools have launched such days in the past two years and plan annual events.
Service-day activities vary according to local needs and alums’ passions. In their first service days this year, Kent State University alums sorted clothing to hand out in Cleveland and painted the home of an owner in need in Canton. Clemson University grads sorted provisions at food banks in Atlanta and Orlando. On Saturday, Oregon State University alums will help the U.S. Forest Service in Bend, Ore., manually root out spotted knapweed, an invasive species.
In the past, religious groups have done much of the nation’s volunteer work, but alumni service days illustrate how other types of organizations are helping create a “larger infrastructure” for volunteerism, according to Michelle Nunn, CEO of the Points of Light Institute, an Atlanta-based non-profit group.
“Schools are increasingly a part of the tapestry” of institutions mobilizing people for service, Nunn says.
With service days, alumni offices are branching out beyond happy hours and receptions at sporting events.
“We are redefining how we reach out to our alumni,” says Andrea Wilson, assistant director for outreach at Kent State’s Alumni Association. “Before, it was more about bringing alumni back to connect with the university. Now, it’s doing that but also helping alumni connect with their own communities.”
Grads may be giving time instead of money on service days, but they’re still functioning as “boosters” as they do good deeds in a school’s name, according to Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
“Traditionally, once alums have graduated, they’ve been viewed by their institutions as ATMs or boosters or engaged in positive activities of this sort,” Neal says. She sees service days as “a more creative development effort” with dividends for local communities, but not as a reflection of improved dynamics in alumni relations.
Whatever the significance, service days are proving popular. Since Boston College launched its first one four years ago, participation has grown about 20% a year, says Tory Leeman, senior associate director of chapter programs. About 550 signed up this year.
Observers say service days strike the right chord for the times. In a tough economy, it feels good to lend a helping hand, according to several Boston College alums at Rogers Park. For Linda James, the park cleanup marked an opportunity to help her alma mater with its community relations at a time when she can’t afford to give money.
For schools, service days provide bang for the buck. They’re inexpensive to organize, especially since donors often pick up the tab for lunch, supplies and/or T-shirts marking the occasion. They build recognition for schools beyond their regions. And they attract scores of alums who aren’t likely to turn out for sporting events or respond to other mailings.
“I had six e-mails this morning” from service day participants, Wilson says. “They were saying, ‘Thank you so much. I got to meet new people, or I got to experience a new organization, or I connected with this person and I want to get more involved.'”
Here in Brighton, Boston College alums scoured a treed hillside to make this park near campus look nicer for spring. Gary Bosse says the activity provided a way to repay the school for giving him a security job that allowed him to earn a degree tuition-free. For Joe Galia, removing empty alcohol containers marked a small way to help kids forge healthy habits.
“I worry about kids being depressed and becoming addicts,” Galia says. “If they see empty bottles, they might get the idea to go out drinking. But if they don’t see it, then it’s out of sight and out of mind.”
Service days seem to hold particular appeal for young alums. Graduates who took service learning courses while in school are 20% more likely to volunteer than those who haven’t, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. That service spirit, reflected in the Serve America Act, which President Obama signed in April, is one that colleges aim to channel.
“A lot of people want to volunteer, but it needs to be made easy for them, like, ‘This is a project. Come show up now,’ ” says Christi Kasten, director of board relations for the Oregon State University Alumni Association.
“Sometimes you just have to help people to do what they want to do.”