Ospreys take flight - and then unite

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Living and working in Southern California 2,446 miles from the University of North Florida campus, Jenna LeMaster was curious about whether there were any fellow Ospreys in the area, so she logged on to the professional networking site LinkedIn and searched. To her surprise, she found more than 130.  

  

“I’ve been out of school for almost eight years and have yet to utilize the Alumni Association’s benefits, so I thought if there are that many people living out here, I bet they would be just as excited to leverage the Osprey community for support, whether it be [making] a new friend with Florida roots or a business contact,” she said. 

  

So LeMaster contacted fellow alumni in the area and enlisted them to join her in petitioning UNF’s Alumni Association to establish an alumni chapter in the Southern California/Los Angeles area.  

  

“We believe that a local chapter could play an integral role in the success and advancement of our careers,” read the petition signed by a dozen alumni. “Even though we are across the country, we believe that staying connected and committed to our alma mater will enable us to soar to new heights.” 

  

LeMaster is extremely proud of her Osprey roots and she knew that an alumni club “could serve to raise awareness of the successes that are happening in the Los Angeles area by UNF alumni, while offering everyone support and business relationship opportunities.”  

  

The association’s board of directors approved the chapter at its January meeting, and UNF now has two alumni clubs – one in California and one in New York. The association is talking with alumni in Washington, D.C., about forming a club and with alumni in Atlanta about reforming their club as well. 

  

It may seem odd that UNF would start alumni clubs in Los Angeles and New York City, but consider this: About two dozen universities from outside Florida have active alumni clubs in Jacksonville, including the University of Southern California, which is just a short drive from where LeMaster works as a marketing director in Hermosa Beach. Washington State, Syracuse, Penn State, Kentucky and Notre Dame all have clubs in UNF’s shadow. Even the Harvard Business School has an alumni club in Jacksonville. 

  

Alumni clubs provide graduates with an opportunity to reconnect with their alma mater and network with other alumni. Many clubs offer something for all age groups, whether participants are interested in social or cultural events, athletics, philanthropy or making business contacts. They’re great for networking. 

  

The Georgia Tech club, for example, serves as a forum for alumni, parents, family and friends of Georgia Tech to socialize, volunteer and even recruit and interview prospective students, according to its Web site. Older colleges and universities with large alumni bases have formed clubs throughout the country. For example, Auburn University, which was chartered in 1856, has 98 alumni clubs in 24 states. Its Jacksonville club has 385 members. 

  

UNF, which opened for classes in 1972, only has 60,239 alumni spread throughout the United States, though most live in Florida and nearly half remain on the First Coast. 

           

Kerry N. Dunning, president of the UNF Alumni Association, said that because the majority of UNF alums live on the First Coast, it’s easy for the University to stay connected with them by hosting lots of activities. But it’s also important for the University to stay connected with alums living far from campus, she said. 

  

“If we stay in touch with alums, they’re much more likely to give back,” she said. “Now, that may be financially, and that may be in other ways. That may be talking to people in Atlanta or New York about the University and sending potential students this way. But I think all of it leads back to more and more people knowing about the University of North Florida, and overall that has lots of nice side effects.” 

  

Dunning said that when there are pockets of alumni living in other areas there’s an advantage to bringing them together so they have a peer group of people that they can network with, whether it’s social or business networking. 

  

“For me, personally, it’s the fact the University of North Florida has enough history now and is getting, I won’t say big, because it’s still a smaller-sized university, but big enough to have an alumni chapter in New York City, an alumni chapter in Los Angeles and, we hope, an alumni chapter in Atlanta and maybe Washington, D.C.,” Dunning said. “It makes me laugh. I just think it’s one of those wonderful things in life to think that the University has progressed that far.” 

  

The New York City club got its start after Kim Diamon, associate director of Alumni Services, led a group of young alumni on a 2008 weekend trip to the city and sent invitations to all alumni living in the area to join them at a reception. 

  

“I went not really knowing what to expect,” said Douglas Smith, who owns an art gallery in Lower Manhattan with his wife and is the person who started the New York club. “I remember thinking ‘There are other UNF alumni here?’ I was surprised to find a decent-sized group of people had shown up. Everyone got along so well that we started meeting about once a month on our own, and the club morphed out of that, well, with a little prodding from Kim.” 

  

The New York club, which includes alumni from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island, Queens and Manhattan, hosts an event nearly every month in a different venue. One night the group went to Cleopatra’s Needle, a jazz spot on the Upper West Side, one Saturday afternoon alumni met in Central Park and then visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

  

“I think my favorite was when we went sailing around lower Manhattan on an 80-foot schooner,” Smith said. “On and on it goes. The possibilities are endless here.”          

  

Faith Hall, director of Alumni Services at UNF, said regional alumni clubs extend UNF’s reach by giving the University a presence in areas outside its local footprint. Members typically stay connected and well informed about their alma mater and serve as great ambassadors for the University.  

  

Depending on where a club is located, she said, members could also serve as a legislative network throughout the state or host a variety of events associated with athletics, which could help provide much-needed support for student athletes now that UNF is Division I. 

  

Hall said alumni interest in athletic events makes it very easy to keep regional alumni connected because it gives them a flag to rally around. “Almost all university alumni clubs have game-watch events if their athletic program is nationally televised,” she said. 

  

LeMaster is counting on it. “With UNF showing up on ESPN these days, we are bound to schedule an event around that,” she said. 

  

So far, the Southern California alumni have only met informally, but LeMaster said they are planning their first official event, possibly a joint event with alumni from the University of Michigan in hopes of drawing a larger crowd. The New Yorkers hope to host a joint event with alumni from Jacksonville University, Smith said. 

  

Starting an alumni chapter doesn’t require hundreds of alumni in an area, but it does require commitment, Hall said. When the alumni population is too spread out, or the demographics vary greatly, or there is a lack of organization, it becomes a challenge.  

  

“You need to have several alumni with similar interests, living in a concentrated area, who are led by strong committed volunteers,” she said. 

“Survival really depends on the strength of the leaders and commitment of volunteers who support them. It takes time to build a strong club, but once it’s established the rewards are great.” 

  

For information about starting an alumni chapter in your area, call 1-800-UNF-GRAD.