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private schools: alumni

This isn’t your father’s alumni association meeting: Sharon Au, left, and Nina Coutinho go head to head at a University of Toronto Schools alumni bowling outing in Toronto.

On a Tuesday night in late August, former graduates of University of Toronto Schools (UTS) gathered to catch up over strikes, spares and splits at the Bathurst Bowlerama in north Toronto. Earlier in the summer, alumni organized a dodgeball tournament.

Informal and offbeat events like these are part of a fresh approach by alumni associations to be more inclusive and accessible to its past graduates. Easy to organize through social media networks, these events augment or even replace the more formal activities associations are known for.

UTS, a 103-year-old school near the University of Toronto's St. George campus for grades 7 through 12 students, has a loose affiliation and historic bonds with the university, but has operated as a non-profit, independent high school since 2004.

A core group of alumni always participates in long-standing events such as an annual dinner and golf tournament, but the alumni association, now headed by Toronto lawyer Mark Opashinov, wanted to reach out to graduates who wouldn't normally attend such formal gatherings.

"Fundraising is done through the office of advancement at [UTS]. The alumni association sees its chief role as 'friendraising' as opposed to fundraising, to preserve and enhance relationships among alumni and between the alumni and the school," Mr. Opashinov said.

The offbeat events such as bowling and dodgeball nights, along with readings and lectures by UTS alumni who are now authors, have been a big hit with shy alumni. It all started with a series of focus groups to see what would compel a broader base of alumni to become more involved.

"We have alumni who graduated 60 years ago," Mr. Opashinov said. "Having the same events is not going to appeal to everybody. We're trying to mix it up and offer events for recent alumni, to women, to a bigger and more diverse group that until now has not been targeted."

Mr. Opashinov, who graduated in 1988 after attending the school since Grade 7, didn't feel an urgent need to get involved with alumni activities until a fellow alumnus, who was also a Bay Street lawyer he knew professionally, recruited him.

That's a common theme among private-school graduates: Alumni generally drift back into the school's extended community only after they get their own lives on a desirable track. At that point, they feel a strong appreciation for the values of perseverance and resiliency they developed at school.

That was the path of Colleen Mansfield, the director of advancement at King's-Edgehill School. She also graduated from the Windsor, N.S., school in 1984, but didn't become active in alumni affairs until 2007 after moving back to the province.

It's been a busy homecoming for Ms. Mansfield. She started her job last February, just in time to help organize a massive summer reunion to celebrate the school's 225th anniversary as Canada's oldest private school.

Located about 70 kilometres northwest of Halifax, King's-Edgehill is a co-ed boarding school with not only a long history – and deep alumni base – but also a healthy contingent of international students among its total enrolment of 250. It can be a challenge to keep track of everyone, but Facebook has made it much easier not just to maintain contact but to get them the information they need.

"Our job is to keep them engaged and give them the information they want in the format they want," Ms. Mansfield said.

King's-Edgehill emphasizes that students are welcome back to campus any time they want to visit, with no appointment necessary. Events such as reunions can also be informal, with the understanding you can come at the last minute if you want, according to Ms. Mansfield. And at no time are you asked for a cheque.

"Giving isn't discussed," she said. "We just want you to come back and get to know the campus again and reconnect. It's more important that you feel the connection, and the giving will flow from that."

Much of the fundraising performed by alumni is modest and designed to supplement bursary and scholarship funds for students needing financial aid, not school capital projects. For them, it's important their old school remains accessible to worthy prospective students whose parents may not have the means to pay for rapidly rising tuition.

They also serve as ambassadors of the school for parents of prospective students seeking information on what it has to offer. The competition for students has made it more important than ever that alumni are up to date on the latest innovations and developments at their old school.

"It took me a while to realize that those years shaped you and what you ended up being," said Pat Holmes, a Vancouver lawyer and graduate of Vancouver College's class of 1980.

There are enough sanctioned events during the school year for alumni of all walks of life, Mr. Holmes said, including a fishing derby, basketball tournament and hockey tournament. Even if they don't go to an event for a few years, alumni always know it will be there for them.

Notable Alumni

Notable alumni who have graduated from University of Toronto Schools include:

John Tory, radio host and former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party from 2004 through 2009.

Paul Tough, author and magazine editor.

Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail columnist and author.

Notable alumni who have graduated from King's-Edgehill School include:

James Gilbert, film and television actor whose credits include the drama The Tudors.

Gordon Cooper, Rhodes Scholar and former judge on the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

Geoff Walker, professional player for the National Hockey League's Tampa Bay Lightning.

Notable alumni who have graduated from Vancouver College include:

Angus Reid, professional football player in the Canadian Football League.

Bob Ackles, president of the B.C. Lions in the CFL.

Kevin Falcon, former B.C. minister of finance.