Go to any college or university and interview alumni who are proud of their school.
“There is just something special about this place,” you will hear over and over in various forms.
The reality, though, is that there isn’t that much truly special (or different) about the place.
It’s an institution of higher education (like, literally, thousands of others). All of which have similar courses. All of which have similar student groups. All of which have similar out-of-class opportunities. And on and on.
Yes, there are differences with student body size, geographic location, types of teaching methodology and pedagogy, specific traditions (although most all student-based traditions on college campuses have similar underpinnings of behavior expectations and effects).
But, overall in the big picture, all of these thousands of institutions aren’t that different from one another.
Yet, alumni claim an allegiance, a care, and a loyalty to their alma mater that is disproportionately felt when compared to how similar most institutions are to each other. And, many alumni truly believe their experiences were fundamentally different than the experiences of students at other institutions.
From an advancement standpoint, we can sometimes spend far too much energy and time asking ourselves the question, “what makes our institution unique and different?” Our answers are almost always focused on identifying a unique academic program, or a special student initiative, or a distinctive aspect of our extra-curricular opportunities.
The truth, though, is that we should be spending far more time asking alumni to tell us why their alma mater is so special to them.
When we spend more time reminding them – or better yet, asking them questions so that they remind themselves – why there is “just something special” about their alma mater, we are tapping into what, authentically, is different and special about our institutions.
Our institution is not special because we are, in fact, unique.
Our institution is special because our alumni believe we are unique.