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Kinga Petrovai used the alumnae network at Elmwood School to research graduate programs. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Kinga Petrovai used the alumnae network at Elmwood School to research graduate programs. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Private Schools

Private school alumni links enrich career options Add to ...

Recently, James McMillan, director of advancement for Selwyn House School in Montreal's Westmount neighbourhood, launched an app that allows users to instantly see which alumni are living in a city they are visiting. The app, created for the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry platforms, enables “old boys,” as grads are called, to connect with those who have opted to share details about their whereabouts and occupations.

The app is just the latest evidence that private schools are looking for new ways to connect their students, from embracing technology to formalizing programs such as` mentorships, career days and even alumni sports tournaments. Today's private school alumni associations are pushing beyond traditional reunions toward more active connections that help alumni with everything from career development to finding friends in a new city.

Although class reunions and an informal “old girls” network has been around for decades at Toronto's Havergal College, the all-girls school has started to experiment with a more formal long-term mentorship program that matches “old girl” mentors with new students and young alumnae.

“Every year we reach out to mentees and pair people together,” says Louise Yearwood, Havergal's executive director of advancement and community relations. “We have an event at the school to take them through the steps of what a mentor-mentee relationship looks like so it's an enriching experience for both parties.”

She adds that many of the new pairs end up staying in touch: “Formal programs may end, but they become friends.”

Dale McIntosh from the class of 1992 is president of the Havergal Old Girls Association and says she has already met with more than one young alumna to chat informally about her career as a freelance event producer. Beyond the vocational, Ms. McIntosh says the online directory is used for a variety of purposes, recalling a friend who searched it to meet new people when she moved to Boston, and even a few who have checked for a network of reliable babysitters.

While online databases with updatable profiles enhance the growing networks, the alumni officers themselves are also key not only for their outreach but for their institutional memories.

At Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ont., alumni development officer Maeve Strathy facilitates a new mentoring program called “Bear Tracks.” If a student looking for specific career information can't find it in the database, Ms. Strathy can often recall someone who may be able to help.

Selwyn's James McMillan says he also advises alumni to give him a call for quick connections. “I tell everybody if you're moving somewhere or get a new job in Singapore or Philadelphia, give me a call and I'll tell you who's down there,” he says.

Of course, alumni also find their own ways to keep in touch. While director of advancement Ellen Ewert's office provides the classic reunions and fundraisers to alumnae of the Elmwood School in Ottawa, she says she constantly hears from those who have managed their connections on their own, even before tools such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

“I'm always surprised when I chat with some of our alumni that there are regular groups who get together twice a year – it's about friendship they've maintained,” says Ms. Ewart.

Sarah Yan, an Elmwood student who graduated in 2005 and now works for the federal government, says she keeps in touch through Facebook pages as well as the school's official e-mails. She attends at least one alumni event a year, where she connects not only with peers but with more recent grads to find out about new developments at the school.

“When you're at the reunions you take the time to ask about their experiences. It's valuable to sit in the same room and get the perspectives of other alumni,” Ms. Yan says.

Kinga Petrovai, an Elmwood grad from 1999 who recently graduated from a master's program in education at Harvard University, also meets with fellow alumni for informal hangouts or even more special occasions (a recent wedding in Ottawa saw seven grads reuniting, some from as far away as Africa and England).

Ms. Petrovai recalls using the alumni network twice when she researched grad programs, once to connect with a U.K. professor who was an Elmwood grad, and another with a former classmate. Both were positive experiences.

“We hadn't talked in 10 years and we had a great conversation,” she says of her former classmate. “It felt like we were back 10 years ago.”

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