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Discovery

Students interview alums about their
Whitworth stories, experiences
By Josh Cleveland, '01

A university's graduates provide precious resources – time, energy, goodwill and financial support – to their alma mater. Their opinions and perspectives are crucial to an institution's growth and to its success. Over the years, Whitworth has sought feedback from alumni primarily through somewhat impersonal surveys. Knowing, though, that Whitworth alumni are well-versed in critical thinking and are equipped to apply their opinions and beliefs to effect and implement change, the office of alumni relations has implemented a new and personal way for alumni to share their stories and to help shape Whitworth's future.

Summer 2013 Ambassadors
Summer 2013 Ambassadors: 1. Julia Feeser, '13; 2. Johnny Strain, '13;
3. Bethany Carrillo, '14; 4. Lauren Roberts, '14; 5. Eli Casteel, '15;
6. Rachel Gerig, '15; 7. Hanna Kim, '15; 8. Elke Neuenschwander, '15;
9. Sammy Skinner, '15; 10. Katherine Smith, '15; 11. Johanna
Marcelia, '16; 12. Hannah Tweet, '16 (Photos: Becky Prior, '04)

The Alumni Discovery Project, a concept adapted from former Georgetown University vice president Jim Langley, allows Whitworth to connect with alumni from diverse eras, geographical locations and experiences. Through hour-long, face-to-face interviews conducted by student ambassadors, Whitworth alums talk about their life experiences before, during and after their days on campus.

In spring 2013, after a selective hiring process, 12 current Whitworth students went through rigorous training before being sent into the field during the summer to interview alums in some of the university's most highly concentrated regions. Alumni who were invited to be part of the project received advance information from the university and a personal invitation from the students themselves.

Whitworth's strong sense of community carried over to the interviews, as students and alums met for a conversation over a cup of coffee, a walk-and-talk in a park, or a discussion in a local business office. Throughout the summer, student ambassadors heard stories from 323 alums who graduated between the early 1950s and 2012. Students weren't merely reading questions from a page or using notes in these interviews; rather, they had memorized nearly eight pages of questions, internalized them, and integrated some of the questions into conversations with the alumni interviewees, seeking to hear and honor each unique story.

Ambassador Lauren Roberts, '14, says, "I got to know several alums – I heard about their Whitworth experiences, learned about things they value and things they would change, came to know what they are passionate about, and explored what they would like to see from/at Whitworth. I also had the chance to hear about their lives now.... [T]he best part was hearing their drastically different stories and seeing how Whitworth provided these alums with a foundation that continues to influence their lives."

During this first year of the project, the student ambassadors and, through them, the alumni office reconnected with a broad range of grads. The project's hope is to broaden the scope of Whitworth's knowledge through future interviews, which will take place during holiday breaks and summers to come.

Asked what she would say to those alums who may be skeptical about a Discovery interview, Portland-based alumna Emilee Langbehn, '09, says, "It was a joyful experience to share about my time at Whitworth and to hear about someone who is doing it right now. I think it's important for the school to get feedback from alums from all generations, with all kinds of experience, and to really evaluate which questions work and which ones need attention. All alums' views and opinions are valid and the more feedback Whitworth gets, the more the university can do with that information."

Student ambassador Elke Neuenschwander, '15, chats with Alex Schuerman, '97, over a cup of coffee at Mind & Hearth. (Photo: Kirk Hirota)

As interviews were completed throughout the summer, it became clear that while alumni had a broad range of experiences, they shared some strong feelings about key issues. Meaningful connections with faculty and staff top that list, followed closely by an ongoing appreciation for the tight-knit feel of the university and the opportunity for close community in a safe environment. It may be surprising to some that ambassadors were consistently told about the Core program's positive impact on alums' personal and professional lives. They also heard heartfelt concerns about the university's politics – some perceived the institution as too conservative, some as too liberal – and about the rising costs of higher education. There is trepidation among many that these rising costs could limit Whitworth's future and keep deserving students from attending.

Many alums expressed their fervent hope that the university would hold on to its distinctive sense of community as it grows in size and increases its presence on the national stage. Bethany Carrillo, '14, an ambassador based in Spokane, heard a range of thoughts on Whitworth's growth. "Half of the alumni I interviewed believe that growth is wonderful and gives more credibility and prestige to their degrees and to the school," Carrillo says. "The other half was worried that it would take away from the intimacy and close-knit atmosphere for which Whitworth is so well known."

Nearly every alum interviewee asked, "So, what will you do with this information?" In short, the answer is, "Plenty!" After each interview, student ambassadors captured the spirit and specifics by reporting themes and stories for the university to glean from. The alumni office's priority is to use this information, rather than to let it sit on a hard drive. Whitworth plans to draw from this rich pool of information to reflect on where the university has been, to inform current practices, and to aid in strategic planning for the future. Some changes are already taking place as a result of the interviews.

According to Keith Blodgett, '90, "My time at Whitworth means a lot to me and is, in large part, why I am the person I am today. I was intrigued by the Discovery Project and was happy to share my story." Alumna Meg Bunker, '05, summarizes why she believes the interviews are important: "It's worth far more than an hour of our time to reflect on the shaping years of our college experience and to reinvest in Whitworth in this way – by staying connected and invested in the school as it is now, as well as in what it will become. It's our chance to have a voice in the direction Whitworth will take as it grows and changes."

Whitworth President Beck A. Taylor has championed the project from its inception. "Whitworth is committed to staying in relationship with its alumni," Taylor says. "We celebrate the ways in which alumni have told us we're doing a great job, and we are fully committed to improving our efforts in response to the suggestions we have received. Ultimately, the Whitworth family will be stronger as a result."

Program ambassador Jonny Strain, '13, says of his experience, "I was so encouraged by these interviews, because none of the stories were the same. There are so many Whitworthians making unique choices and living unique lives. I was encouraged by all the possibilities, as well as reminded of the realities (e.g., money and debt, work, familial responsibilities). And having listened to so many alumni reflect on their lives in ways that they hadn't in a while, I now have this little voice in my head asking, 'If I were to receive an invitation to be interviewed 30 or 40 years from now, what would I hope to be able to say about my life?' That is a powerful question to have nagging at me as a young alum, and I can thank the Discovery Project for that."

For more information about the Discovery Project, please visit www.whitworth.edu/alumni/discovery.

Click here to view a video interview with student ambassador Lauren Roberts, '14.

Josh Cleveland is assistant director of the Whitworth Office of Alumni & Parent Relations.

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