SUNY Oswego’s inaugural Imagine 2021 program earns multiple awards

OSWEGO - SUNY Oswego’s Imagine 2021 professional development series that connected current students with alumni and resources for success recently racked up four awards recognizing the innovative nature and collaborative spirit of the program.

Imagine 2021 earned two SUNY Council for University Advancement Best in Category Awards for advancement professionals -- Excellence in Events: Alumni Engagement and Excellence in Events: Campus Community -- and two SUNY Career Development Organization Awards -- Excellence in Alumni Programs and Excellence in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives.

President Deborah F. Stanley’s office asked Career Services and Development and Alumni Engagement to coordinate the five-week program of daily sessions during the January 2021 break.

SUNY Oswego’s inaugural Imagine series sought to creatively connect students with alumni, assist students in finding internships, help seniors successfully transition to the job market or graduate school and develop a strong sense of student/alumni community and affiliation with the institution. Organizers also invited recent alumni to participate and even made these services available to prospective SUNY Oswego students.

Nearly 500 attendees benefited from this effort in real time, while the sessions were recorded and have more than double that amount of views -- serving as permanent professional development for current and future students as well as alumni seeking resources.

Organizers Laura Kelly, director of alumni engagement, and Gary Morris, director of career services, agreed the success comes from “the Oswego way,” a commitment to inclusive and collaborative approaches that strive for excellence and innovation.

“We have colleagues on campus looking to go the extra 10 miles, not even just the extra mile, and put so much effort into delivering,” Kelly said. “It’s the Oswego way. Everything we do, people come together not to just make it work but to make it fantastic.”

“Other colleges are calling us to see how we did it,” Morris said. “We don’t implement programs to win awards. We do these things because we work at SUNY Oswego, and the Oswego way is how we get things done. Winning awards is just a byproduct of the work we do.”

Organizers pointed to an intentional effort to be inclusive, especially in terms of a strongly diverse representation of alumni panelists and student moderators. While 31 percent of Oswego students identify themselves as diverse populations, 51 percent of Imagine 2021 attendees were diverse.

“That’s a home run,” Morris said. “Our charge for this was to offer something for all students, and we wanted to reflect our campus population and all of our students.”

“We wanted attendees to be able to see themselves in our speakers,” Kelly said, adding that it was diverse in every sense, including types of students, years alumni participants graduated and the fields they entered.

Creating engagement

“It was a tough year for a lot of colleges to engage alumni in general, yet this was a project that engaged so many alumni and a diverse group of alumni and students in a significant way,” Kelly said.

They also learned that Oswego was distinctive among colleges in providing this kind of intensive experience over the 2020-21 winter break, to raise up their offerings in what other institutions considered downtime. The collaboration between Career Services with Alumni and Development made it possible to create such a robust program on an aggressive timeline.

“Because of our strong track record of collaboration, we were able to hit the ground running so much faster,” Morris said.

The level of alumni engagement and connection also made it easier to schedule speakers willing to pay back the opportunities they had as Lakers.

“Our alumni have such an affinity because they remember what the college did for them, and they want to pay it forward so that current and even future Lakers can have opportunities,” Kelly said. “We think of them as Lakers for life, and we put that mindset into everything we do.”

“SUNY Oswego really is a transformative place for our students,” Morris said. “It’s where so many of them discover who they are and their path for life. There’s an affinity to this place that spans their lifetime.”

Consistent leadership and a dedication to students helped as well, Kelly said.

“It’s worth noting many of these alumni went to school under President Stanley’s leadership, and the continuity of the student-centered environment has been a constant,” Kelly said.

Imagine 2021 has become a living document even as plans are already under way for Imagine 2022 next January. People continue to play the videos, and Imagine 2021 allowed the college to collect valuable evergreen content, like from alumni who now work at LinkedIn telling students and alumni how to maximize their use of that platform as well as LinkedIn Learning.

Feedback suggests that they might be able to condense the program and perhaps combine with other elements, such as NYC Career Connections, which also regularly takes place in January. Finding ways to better engage faculty and student organizations in the process is another goal. But as a first effort, the awards, the ability to help students and the attention of other colleges show that the program reached its benchmarks of success and then some.

“We are very proud of this program,” Kelly said. “I’m so proud of the team that was able to make this a reality. It’s become a gold standard among our peers, and it’s awesome that we made this happen for our Lakers.”

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