Jeneé Osterheldt

College alumni: School pride needs to go beyond T-shirts

School pride must go beyond game day and gear. Giving back is essential.
School pride must go beyond game day and gear. Giving back is essential.

When I saw the number, I immediately recognized it.

I wasn’t sure who was calling, but I knew it was coming from the campus of Norfolk State University — where I graduated from in 2001. When I answered, a young woman who sounded like a student greeted me. She wanted to know whether I was attending homecoming this October.

Strange question, I thought. But right now, enrollment is down by about 500 students. Game attendance isn’t what it used to be. Homecoming is a great weekend to pull in crowds and dollars. She went on to ask me to donate to student scholarships. I couldn’t swing the few hundred dollars she ambitiously suggested, so I said I would look into donating more when I could.

When we hung up, I started thinking. It has been years since I have been on my school’s campus in Virginia. The last time was several years ago, when I spoke to a class of aspiring journalists. I so often wear my NSU T-shirts with pride, but I haven’t done enough to give back to the school that gave so much to me.

I’m not alone. According to the nonprofit Council for Aid to Education, alumni support has declined. In 2003, 13 percent of alumni gave to their schools. Last year, only 9 percent donated.

There are a lot of reasons why people disconnect. The biggest: debt.

Experian, a credit bureau, recently reported that 40 million Americans have at least one outstanding student loan, up 29 million since 2008. Total student loan debt is at its highest, a stifling $1.2 trillion.

So when people get calls, emails and letters asking for money, they just don’t have it. Or they feel like a little gift doesn’t cut it. But every dollar counts.

The UMKC Alumni Association understands how a little bit goes a long way. At the start of the economic downturn, alumni wanted to concentrate more on student scholarships. So they turned regular events like their annual awards luncheon into a fundraiser. Individual tickets are $75. Over the last six years, this luncheon has raised more than $600,000.

“By collectively combining, it makes a big impact in creating this web of support of students,” said Lisen Tammeus Mann, UMKC vice chancellor for alumni and constituent relations.

But she says it’s not just about giving money. There are many ways to help your school. One of the most valuable is volunteering. Last year the university logged more more than 217,000 hours of volunteer time — $5 million worth of donated time. She says it’s as simple as mentoring, speaking on panels, advising or just showing up to help.

“Spending a little time with students can make a big difference,” Lisen says. “Day in and day out, there are alumni providing services we would otherwise have to pay for or would not have at all.”

The young woman I spoke to from Norfolk State stuck with me. I wondered whether she was in a work-study program like I was. I remember how I used to count on that little bit of extra money.

So I’ve rejoined my alumni association, and I made a small donation. I’m going to homecoming. I’m all about raising awareness for the school’s “I Am NSU” scholarship efforts.

We’re still recovering from the recession. I get it. I know it’s easy to think you paid your tuition so you shouldn’t have to give any more dollars to your college.

But these are the places that helped us get our foot in the door, that taught us priceless lessons about the people we are. School pride must go beyond game day. It must be bigger than school colors and T-shirts.

Wanting the schools to be better places seems natural. But it’s not just about the campuses. It’s about the students. They benefit from those donations, and they are the ones who are going to lead us one day.

When we give back, be it with our time or our money, we are giving back to the future.

To reach Jeneé Osterheldt, call 816-234-4380 or send email to josterheldt@kcstar.com. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. On Twitter @jeneeinkc.

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