The University of North Florida’s alumni base has experienced unprecedented growth during the last decade. There are now more than 26,000 young alumni worldwide who share UNF as an alma mater. As those numbers swell and the University’s national footprint grows, UNF’s trained staff of Institutional Advancement central development officers has been working hard to engage that same young alumni population and explain how important they are to maintaining UNF’s present and future excellence.The Office of Annual Giving has launched “The U in UNF” campaign. The web page — theuinunf.org/ — allows former students to reconnect with classmates and update friends on their current life journeys. The U in UNF Heather Varian, director of Annual Giving, said the premise of the website is to engage the University’s tech-savvy and time-strapped young alumni base in a medium they prefer.“As the pool of young alumni keeps getting deeper, we have begun to realize that we needed to do more than just send out mail and hope it gets to them,” Varian said. “Younger college graduates have a tendency to move a lot and have a number of different addresses. That makes it exceedingly difficult to connect through the traditional strategy of direct mail.” That’s what inspired “The U in UNF” web page, which operates as an analogue to social-networking sites such as Facebook, said Claire Miller, assistant director of Annual Giving.It includes user-generated images and content and allows alumni to interact with friends on their own terms. Many young alumni have taken the opportunity to post their fondest memories of their time on campus.Tiffani Irish, a 2003 sociology grad who now works as events manager at Jacksonville’s historic Florida Theatre, posted her own said her own UNF testimonial on the website. The biggest takeaway from her time on campus was that her professors truly provided an unparalleled college experience through their commitment to interacting with students and providing hands-on learning opportunities. “They were all dedicated and gave a personal touch,” she said. “They all knew my name and me personally.”Varian said social networking is one of the most effective methods for user engagement. “If you’re trying to interact with busy young alumni for a minimum of five minutes, a web page is going to do far better than a phone call or piece of direct mail,” she said. “The whole purpose is to get them back in the University community and let them put back the ‘The U in UNF.’”Financial health Younger alumni are key to the long-term financial viability of any University, said Brandon McCray, assistant vice president for Development. The annual giving rate has steadily increased from about 6 percent three years ago to about 9 percent this year. And the past year was one of the best in terms of University fundraising, despite a down economy and financial insecurity clouding the nonprofit fundraising circuit.McCray said that’s proof of the maturation of the University’s alumni base. UNF has largely subsisted for the past 40 years on major gifts from friends of the University, and he said he expects there to be a far different financial breakdown in another 40 years.“The long-term welfare isn’t tied to just major gifts but rather the rate of alumni giving,” he said. “Younger alumni, they’re the advocates, the ambassadors, the beneficiaries of a thriving University, and they truly set the tone for the financial health of an institution.” “The U in UNF” campaign is about showing them how important they truly are in the continued growth of their alma mater. After all, a degree’s worth can be measured based on the strength of the issuing institution.“A strong, thriving UNF is a good thing for every current or former student,” McCray said. Donors making a difference Gifts from private support make an impact on every aspect of campus life and are helping to advance knowledge and transform the lives of current and future Ospreys through innovative academic programs, research and Transformational Learning Opportunities (TLOs). For instance, 70 to 80 percent of UNF students receive some form of financial assistance.Zella Harmon can speak to the importance of annual giving better than most.A UNF freshman and Delores Pass Kesler Scholarship recipient, Harmon was raised by her great-grandmother and had little to no familial support for her studies.Her siblings didn’t stay in school. Her home was in a drug-addled and gang-plagued section of Jacksonville’s Northside. Even the daily trek to school was a struggle. She had to catch the city bus every day — that is, if she actually had a dollar to spare for bus fare. Now, she’s the first in her family to attend college. But she won’t be content just to graduate. She wants to thrive.Harmon is enrolled in classes to earn her accounting degree while fulfilling the prerequisites for a Ph.D. in pharmacy. Her long-term goal is to become a pharmacist, own her own shop and leave a lasting impression on her community.She said she chose UNF because of the many opportunities it offered her. Her Kesler scholarship made it possible for her to focus exclusively on her studies — not on part-time jobs, tuition payments or the looming specter of student-loan debt. “The area I plan on studying requires a lot of time and studying,” she said. “Trying to earn my degree while at a part-time job wouldn’t have worked out well. I’d be more likely to have dropped out. This scholarship makes it possible for people like me to continue on and succeed.”While the Kesler scholarship was created thanks to a generous donation from Delores Pass Kesler and Deborah Pass Durham in 1997, additional contributions from donors to the University’s First Generation in College Scholarship fund allow students such as Harmon to receive a world-class education that they’d otherwise not be able to access. All gifts to the FGIC Scholarship fund are matched dollar for dollar by the State of Florida.Harmon said she’ll never forget the generosity of the benefactors who helped make her higher-education dreams a reality. “It means so much for a less fortunate person like me to be able to go to college,” she said. “I have one less burden to carry, and it feels great. You helped me to be able to make a brighter future for myself and my family.” Click here to make a gift back to your alma mater and learn more about recurring gifts.