Alumni Relations in the era of social distancing

Sally Nott joined Homerton at the beginning of March as Alumni Relations and Events Manager, after 12 years at the Cambridge charity CamSight, and a previous career encompassing roles in the charitable sector, education and the arts. Here she reflects on the irony of beginning such a people-centric role just as social contact is outlawed, and explains how she found her feet from a distance. 

The early morning sun shone with great promise on the morning of Monday, 2 March -  the first day of my new role as Alumni Relations and Events Manager.  As I spent the first two weeks getting to know the wonderful team with whom I would be working; enjoying the hugely tempting menus in the Great Hall each lunchtime; getting to grips with a complex database and finding my way around the College and grounds, little did I realise that this gentle and enjoyable induction period would come to such an abrupt and frightening end.  Within days of starting to tentatively arrange my first event - the London Alumni drinks in May - and take over the reins of the MA Graduation Ceremony on 28 March, I was having to flex my newly learned IT skills to cancel all the carefully planned arrangements of my colleagues, with absolutely no certainty of when they would be resumed. 

Suddenly I swapped my office desk, shining with promise, new post-it notes, biros and notebooks, for my dining room table, complete with haphazard network connection, an inquisitive greyhound and a household requiring my care, time and attention.  How was I going to manage to learn all the intricacies of working within a large institution when I barely knew the names of key staff? As a perfectly capable person with a varied career and positions of responsibility behind me, I still desperately needed my hand held.  How was I going to be able to demonstrate that I am an intelligent person with good skills when I was still having to ask the most mundane of questions to my hugely patient and supportive boss and team?  

The first week in lockdown became a crash course in the powers of technology and remote working.  Who had heard of Zoom four weeks ago?  How many offices had really made full use of Microsoft    Teams?  Would I still be able to learn the mysteries of the University database via a disembodied voice and a computer screen with a life of its own?  Would l I ever be able to sustain a proper conversation that did not sound as though I was speaking from the bottom of a very deep well?  Well, step by step I have learned that it IS possible to gradually integrate into a new role, albeit in an unconventional way.  Twice daily conference calls provide an opportunity to get to know my colleagues (or at least their bookshelves) and although I prefer face-to-face teaching when it comes to technology, both CUDAR and IT support have been enormously helpful in getting me up and running with Homerton’s technology.  It was that very technology that brought an idea that would finally help me to feel that I was contributing something of value to a College that was clearly loved and respected by those involved in its life.    

One of the greatest challenges facing me in the first couple of weeks in lockdown was what does an Events and Relations Manager do when any permitted social interaction is limited to restricted visits to supermarkets?  The thought of a stylish London Wine Bar or an historic University ceremony and celebration had become a distant and remote possibility.  Both the College and University were working hard to ensure that students and alumni were supported and informed, whether by email or social media.  But what about our alumni who were not connected in any way by technology?  The percentage of Homerton alumni of an age where computers and mobile phones did not play a part in their day-to-day lives is still significant and whilst it is a generalisation to assume that anyone over a certain age is not computer literate, it is a fact that generally the older members of the population do not rely on social media or the internet to stay connected and informed.    By creating a telephone support system whereby I contacted those over a certain age, a two-fold benefit could be established.  Elderly and possibly isolated alumni would have a friendly voice from Homerton, checking that all was well and I would start to get to know a section of our graduates and begin to learn about the College from a past student’s perspective.

With a few deft clicks of a keyboard by one of my colleagues a list was produced from which I am now working, spending each day happily calling our more elderly alumni. All of them without exception (so far) have been delighted to hear from the College and even more delighted to share memories of their time at Homerton, whether they were students in the 1940s,50s, 60s or beyond.  The stories they tell all have the same message.  Everyone speaks of Homerton with such affection and gratitude.  Their thoughts and loyalties still remain, in some cases over 70 years after they left. Studying at Homerton marked the beginning of an exciting new life and new opportunities, feelings which I know still stand for our undergraduates today.  It has been and continues to be a real privilege to speak to so many interesting and interested people. I am certainly learning a great deal.   

We are all living in such challenging and uncertain times, but from the very short time that I have been a part of Homerton I know that for certain the College is still offering countless students the same excitement and sense of opportunity.  Students will still view their time at Homerton with deep affection, and although our current final year students have had their studies and all the joy of their final term cut cruelly short, and our MA graduates from this Spring have missed their ceremony, there will come a time when we will be able to make up for this surreal and difficult period in our lives. The reunions will resume; the lectures will take place again and garden parties in the beautiful grounds will hold an even greater joy.

After just one month I know that I made the best decision to apply for a position here.  I am so delighted to be a part of Homerton and look forward to meeting you at some point in the future.