In this post, Grant Spence Director of Alumni Relations and Rachelle Norry Head of Alumni Engagement at the University of Edinburgh describe how they have continued realising their strategy of building community and belonging through the relaunched alumni award.
Over the past two years, we have questioned why we are here. What is the purpose of alumni relations? How do we contribute to the well-being of the University, to the lives of our students? We have consulted, listened, explored and reflected.
We settled on community and belonging. That we help build a sense of being part of something with purpose and heart, a community with common values and shared interests. That we enable people to make new connections, to establish new relationships and networks, to support and take inspiration from each other.
Alumni are the largest part of our community. But we put up false barriers if we treat them as a separate entity. And we are failing if we wait until students graduate before introducing them to the idea of being part of something bigger that can extend long beyond their time on campus.
Our role then is to bring people together, to share and exchange ideas, concerns, challenges, experiences, insights and stories with each other. And if we’re bringing students and alumni together, why not involve staff too?
We landed on a strategy of helping build community and belonging, by focusing on people – who they are, not just what they study or do – and with the aim of doing that in engaging and creative ways.
We resolved to apply that strategy to all that we do, including our relaunched alumni award.
In talking to current and former students, they told us of a desire to know more about individuals whose lives and achievements are not necessarily well known, but whose stories should be shared and celebrated. People who are making a difference in ways that aren’t always visible but whose actions positively affect others.
We wanted the award to be about shared values rather than an absolute measure of success. We decided on the name Being Edinburgh because it captures the idea of representing something without having to define it exactly; it allows individual interpretation and a range of inspirational people and stories to emerge.
The award had to be participative. We opened to nominations – from students, alumni and staff – in December 2019 and had an instant response, 75 arriving within a few days. The nomination period ran to the end of January and we had a sudden influx in the final week. A total of 130 people were nominated; we received more than 3,000 nominations, however, the overwhelming majority for one individual.
News of the award had spread among our Chinese community. China, of course, was then bearing the brunt of COVID-19, causing feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and distress with which we are now all familiar. We heard that our Chinese alumni (and many students) were taking pride and some comfort in their association with alumnus Professor Zhong Nanshan, the epidemiologist leading the effort in China to investigate the virus. Nominating him became a communal effort.
The long list of nominees was narrowed down and a shortlist of three decided upon by a cross-University selection panel of students, alumni and staff. The shortlist (Zhong Nanshan, Barbara Becnel, social justice activist and author, and Tom Western, music researcher and ethnographer) was then put to an online vote, open again to the whole University community.
Zhong Nanshan was the clear winner, entirely fitting given his role at the heart of global efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19. We had intended to announce his award at the Student Awards ceremony in April, an ideal opportunity to spread the message of being part of a wider and lasting University community.
Lockdown prevented that and we had to simply announce the award through social media and email. Nevertheless, Nanshan declared himself proud and honoured to receive the award and, following media coverage throughout China, he told us that the Being Edinburgh Award had a high reputation there.
Which was a conclusion to the project and an outcome we could not have foreseen when we conceived it. As is life in 2020, the Being Edinburgh Award reflected the arrival and impact of COVID-19. But it’s more than that. We have the basis of something that can play a part, alongside other initiatives such as Platform One and Sharing things, the podcast and blog, in fulfilling our goal of adding to our shared sense of belonging and community.
Later this year we’ll launch the 2021 Award, another opportunity to reflect on and celebrate what it means to ‘be Edinburgh’ and to increase knowledge and appreciation of Edinburgh’s diverse community of former students.