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Partnership Program Connects Students with Alumni

Eyebrow Man: George Whipple 3d. a lawyer by day, celebrity interviewer by night (see profile), appeared in an Alumni Partnership Program this past fall.


"If you're willing to take on the risk, the complete loss of everything, the rewards can be huge. It's all how much risk you want to tolerate for the possible reward."

That entrepreneurial credo was offered by George Yancopolous '80, a physician who left the security of a career in academia to start up the biotechnology firm Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc. He spoke to College students at a recent Alumni Partnership Program session.

The practical experience of an alumnus often on the cutting edge of his or her field, shared during a relaxing evening in the comfort of an informal campus setting, has been attracting students to Alumni Partnership Program events for the past year and a half.

The challenge was how to bridge the gap between successful, engaging alumni and current students in the College. The solution, realized through the help of a generous gift from Jerry Grossman '61, is a program that is the nexus of three offices: the Center for Career Services, Residence Life, and the Class Programs.

Rachel Nover '93 of Career Services coordinates the Alumni Partnership Program. In identifying and reaching out to potential participants, Nover has found Director of Alumni Programs and former Dean of Students Roger Lehecka '67 to be a valuable resource because of the links with students he has formed and maintained throughout his years of involvement with the College.

"The program was meant not to be a lawyer coming to tell students how to be a lawyer, or a journalist coming to say how to get a job in a tough job market," explained Lehecka. "It was meant for graduates of the College to talk about what they've done with their lives and what paths they've taken to get there.

"From the students' side, one of the most valuable lessons is that very few paths are straight. So many alumni are doing different things than they thought they would be doing when they graduated from the College. Many have been through several different kinds of careers over that period of time. To hear graduates reflect on that, and in many cases what their experiences in the College meant to them as they made those choices, is valuable in itself."

Nover added, "The goal of the program is to provide opportunities for students and alumni to connect on a personal level and to provide alumni with additional outlets to contribute to the school, as an alternative to or in addition to giving money. It's a really great way for them to get involved."

Brian Paquette, Dean of Residence Life, has taken an active role in the Alumni Partnership Program since its inception.

"This program is necessary because it lets students know that our community isn't just Columbia, meaning those of us that are here on this campus right now. It's Columbia and our alumni," said Paquette. "Often students don't hear what it means to be alumni until they're seniors. I think that's an error. You need to hear about what an alumnus or alumna is when you're a first-year so you realize that you're cultivating a large community. I think the Alumni Partnership Program does that. It makes students aware that you can come back to the school and give in any number of ways."

The Office of Residence Life advertises and hosts the program's events. The Residence Life staff, which consists of residence hall directors and undergraduate resident advisors, works with Nover to match events with a particular residence hall and a particular class. Although most of the events are open to all students, those that are more career-focused are geared toward seniors.

Sudhir Rajbhandary '99, a residence advisor for Furnald Hall, hosted an event at which John Metaxas '80 and Kristina Nye '93, both from CNN Financial News, discussed with students how to break into the popular field of broadcast news. As Furnald is primarily a senior residence hall, Rajbhandary felt the event was particularly helpful for students thinking about careers in journalism after graduation.

"It's a great opportunity to talk to someone who's not there to recruit, who's not there to give you their line," said Rajbhandary. "They were just giving us their honest opinions. There were no agendas, no egos."

Alumni Partnership Program events have targeted other classes as well. Richard Witten '75, a partner at Goldman Sachs and an active alum, has hosted a group of juniors at the Goldman Sachs office on Wall Street for the past two years. This event consists of a networking reception, presentations from various alumni employed in investment banking, and a tour of the trading floors.

As Nover explained, "Having this opportunity in the spring of one's junior year can be a fundamental part of the decision-making process at the time that undergraduates start asking themselves where they'll be in little over a year. In this case they'll be better prepared when recruiters for financial services show up in the spring of their senior years."

A fall event planned specifically for first-year students was a visit to Shea Stadium to watch a Mets game with the team's broadcaster, Gary Cohen '81. Karen Wisniewski, residence hall director for Carman, accompanied Nover and nine first-year students to watch the Mets take on the Montreal Expos.

"It gave me the opportunity to get to know a few of my residents in Carman on a more personal level," said Wisniewski, identifying another benefit of the program. "Off-campus events are a little more difficult to plan, but I think students really take a lot out of them."

On the other hand, Daniel Greenstein '00, who has attended many Alumni Partnership Program events, likes the idea that the program brings alumni back to campus.

"Columbia should be the kind of school that alumni want to maintain their connections with," he said. "I know I'll look back fondly upon my experiences here when I'm an alumnus, and I would definitely want the opportunity to give back by coming back."

A return to Morningside Heights can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the event for the participating alumni. Yancopolous, who is also an adjunct professor on the Physicians & Surgeons campus, hasn't been a stranger to the Morningside campus since his days as a student. As he explained, however, "Never before have I come back to campus with the express purpose or opportunity to spend some time going to the old dorms and seeing dimensions of campus I haven't seen in 20 years.

"Memories do come rushing back. When I walked into Butler Library, which I hadn't seen in 20 years, it was surprisingly so much the same. I walked around and was immediately reminded of what it was like when I was a student here. I don't usually have the time to just come back to campus and be nostalgic, but this gave me the opportunity to do so, to have those memories reawakened.

"Hearing some of the questions the students have is interesting, because they have the same kinds of fears and insecurities and questions about the future that I had. What I tried to do was to remind myself of how I felt back then and address the sort of thoughts people have at this point in their college careers."

The challenge was how to bridge the gap between successful, engaging alumni and current students in the College.

Many famous alumni have participated in the program, including musical legend Art Garfunkel '62, star of the Fox television drama Party of Five Matthew Fox '89, renowned playwright Tony Kushner '78, Deputy US Attorney General Eric Holder '73, MTV founder David Horowitz '48 and celebrated architect Robert A.M. Stern '60. However, the program is not limited to the famous; often students relate well to younger alumni who are just establishing themselves in a field.

Political reporter Bob Hardt '91 of the New York Post met this fall with a group of students to reflect on the outcomes of the recent elections and to discuss his coverage of the New York Senate race in which Charles Schumer unseated Al D'Amato.

"Even though I don't have a huge resumé, like someone who may have been in the field for a longer amount of time, I think it's helpful to have someone who's younger come and be able to talk to people rather than deliver a lecture from someplace on high," observed Hardt. "People in their 20s and early 30s are able to be the example of someone who isn't that far out of college but is accomplishing things."

Perhaps the program's greatest accomplishment is that it helps students envision what the future may hold for them. Students get a chance to see what alumni have done after Columbia and how Columbia has played a role in their career choices.

Following the Yancopolous event, Chris Brady '01 said, "I know I like biology, but I don't want to be a doctor and I don't know what else there really is to do [with a degree in biology]. I like to come to these kinds of things to see in what other directions you can go."

While there are other programs to help students make career choices, Brady felt the story of an alumnus, told in his own words, carries a certain weight.

"It was really good to hear about his experiences here, especially because I don't really think of Columbia as a science-oriented school. With the Core and all, it's very humanities focused. So it helps to hear from someone who studied the sciences here and went on to become so successful in a science-related field."

Sophomore Class Dean Karen Chung sees the benefits of the Alumni Partnership Program for students in their second year at the College.

"A lot of alumni have all these different routes they take before they actually get to where they are. One of our messages to the sophomore class is to major in what you want, and the career will come later.

"Students seem to really enjoy the sense that here's someone in front of them who has suffered through the same college experience that they're currently immersed in. It builds a kind of connection."