Tufts University has long been an internationally focused institution. Yet in one area it has, until recently, been sorely lacking.
Like many universities, Tufts made little attempt to connect with graduates who lived overseas. In 2002 it had only three international alumni chapters, in Greece, Hong Kong, and London, each of them run autonomously.
But since then Tufts has expanded its alumni-relations office and pushed international networking high on its priority list. The university now has 22 active international alumni chapters, reaching out to the estimated 5.8 percent of graduates who live abroad.
More significantly, the chapters have become an integral part of Tufts's work overseas, including recruiting, admission, networking, and fund raising. Chapter meetings have become regular stops for administrators and faculty members who travel outside of the United States.
While Tufts has financial resources that many other institutions do not, administrators say that they achieved their goals not by throwing money at the problem but by thinking strategically.
International events have been coordinated across a network of staff members and advisers. And alumni have been recruited, often in small but meaningful roles, to help develop the university's international presence.
"You have to be persistent and present," says Brian K. Lee, vice president for university advancement, who oversees alumni relations. "It's wrong to think you can dabble and have occasional efforts. You have maximum impact when you have a regular presence."
Although many people have been involved in building up Tufts's global alumni connections, just one person has been given the full-time job of developing and maintaining the international chapters. Gretchen C. Dobson started at Tufts as an alumni-relations officer in 2002 to manage the domestic alumni network and the three international chapters. She soon began to connect with more alumni internationally as well. But aside from a few key parts of the campus, such as the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, which has a strong global alumni network, she found that Tufts lacked the ability to stay in touch with its overseas graduates.
"We didn't have the infrastructure," says Ms. Dobson, who is now senior associate director of domestic and international programs in the Office of Alumni Relations. "We weren't even thinking that way, and no one was telling us to think that way."
Hitting the Road
That quickly changed. The university hired a new president, Lawrence S. Bacow, and a new provost, Jamshed Bharucha, in 2001 and 2002, respectively. Both men took a deep interest in expanding Tufts's international profile. The university also began a capital campaign in 2002, with a $1.2-billion goal. Tufts's global outlook became one of the central themes of the campaign.
Senior administrators quickly realized they needed to strengthen Tufts's connections abroad. Mr. Bharucha and the university's International Board of Overseers, comprising alumni, donors, and parents from 15 countries, took a crucial first step in 2004 when they created a program called Tufts in the World. They selected the countries in which they wanted to expand the university's presence and designed a multipart strategy that would enlarge the alumni base, increase recruitment, and build broader awareness of Tufts internationally.
As part of the program, senior administrators, members of the board, and faculty members traveled to a different country each year. The first trip, to Mexico, was in November 2004. A delegation traveled to India in 2005, and a third group to China in 2007.
In each country, the group hosted events; met alumni and donors; visited university, government, and industry leaders; and generally worked on raising Tufts's profile.
Ms. Dobson, who participated in all three trips, says that this initial reconnaissance gave her the base on which to build. She returned to India, for example, within six months of the university's visit to create alumni chapters there.
In 2005 the university promoted Ms. Dobson to associate director. She was able to hire two alumni-relations officers to take over most of the U.S. chapters, which were also expanding, while she focused almost exclusively on the international ones.
Between 2004 and 2007 the university started chapters in Switzerland, Paris, Singapore, and Beijing, among other locations.
While putting additional resources into the effort was critical, Tufts officials say, their successes would not have been possible without many parts of the university working together.
When planning events abroad, Ms. Dobson regularly confers with Mr. Lee as well as with Jane Etish-Andrews, director of Tufts's International Center, and Jennifer Simons, associate director of admissions and director of international recruitment.
Mr. Lee has helped Ms. Dobson determine which countries should be a top priority for Tufts, in part based on where the greatest number of alumni are. Ms. Etish-Andrews has supplied her with names of international alumni whom she got to know as undergraduates. And Ms. Simons has helped Ms. Dobson make important connections through the Tufts Alumni Admissions Program, in which graduates conduct interviews of undergraduate applicants.
Those relationships have proved to be mutually beneficial.
Ms. Simons says Ms. Dobson is able to keep alumni actively involved in Tufts beyond admissions season. As a result, they represent Tufts particularly well during the interviewing process. Ms. Dobson has also worn a variety of hats while meeting with donors, high-school guidance counselors, and other key supporters. "She may not know the nitty-gritty of admissions," says Ms. Simons, "but she is a wonderful representative of Tufts."
In building chapters, Ms. Dobson says the university's role is to provide guidance and support, both financial and logistical. Tufts will foot the dinner bill, for example, if a group of alumni want to get together to plan a chapter. She encourages them to keep the gatherings simple before they take on elaborate events, like holding a reception for accepted students.
Kristy Endo, a 2005 graduate who helped start the Tokyo chapter, says Tufts gave her a database with the names of 200 graduates with Tokyo addresses, from which she helped establish the first connections.
The university also helped organize accepted students' receptions and alerted the Tokyo chapter when faculty members were coming through town.
Training Chapter Leaders
Ms. Dobson points to two events that she believes have been vital in developing the network.
The first was Tufts World Day, on October 19, 2006. All alumni chapters, domestic and foreign, were asked to participate by holding local events. Eleven of the 18 international chapters at the time joined in, and all were promoted by the university.
The second event, which Ms. Dobson began planning for in 2006, was a training program for international chapter leaders held last May on Tufts's campus in Talloires, France.
Ms. Endo says she found the training program enormously helpful. Among other things, she said, participants discussed the challenge of maintaining a network among a mobile group of alumni. "It's very difficult to keep up the telephone numbers and addresses," says Ms. Endo, who herself has since moved to Singapore. "We try to tackle it by getting e-mail addresses that won't change over time."
Ms. Dobson, who estimates that she has logged 300,000 miles traveling abroad since 2003, stretches each Tufts dollar as far as possible. Sometimes she cosponsors events with other universities' alumni chapters. She is also comfortable asking alumni and parents for help staging events. When planning her spring 2006 trip to India, she contacted a Tufts family that managed several Hyatt hotels there and had attended a Tufts in the World event in 2005.
Ms. Dobson told them she wanted to return to India to hold a reception for accepted students and to begin building alumni chapters, and asked if they would consider supporting some activities. They agreed to arrange receptions and provide lodging for Tufts staff members in New Delhi and Mumbai.
The lesson, she says: "Ask for what you want."
Money management has become particularly important since Tufts began trimming its budget last year. A hiring freeze imposed last fall meant that Ms. Dobson has had to make do with just one alumni-relations officer instead of two. Her budget for international travel and events has been cut by $10,000, to $40,000. As a result, she has scaled down the number of international trips this year from eight to four. And the Tufts in the World program has been put on hold.
But, Ms. Dobson says, she makes sure to stay in touch with those chapters she is unable to visit, letting them know that they remain an integral part of the network.
Meanwhile, Tufts is strengthening its development work among alumni abroad. Last year it created the position of director of Asia relations and development. Ming Zhong, who holds that job, says her work will build on the networks that Ms. Dobson has created, with particular emphasis on fund raising.