The Colgate Scene
March 2008

Going viral
Alumni Council encourages epidemic of engagement
Alumni who participate in a variety of roles took part in a volunteer summit on campus in January, providing feedback and ideas on how the Alumni Council can best generate and facilitate alumni involvement with Colgate. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

On cruise ships and college campuses, you have to watch how you use the word "virus." But, attach it to a participle, and you have a popular metaphor for strategically releasing a concept or message into the public realm, where it can be passed from person to person without any further effort on the creator's part. "Going viral" is such a potent analogy, it has managed to shed some of its medical implications and become commonplace.

Over the past year, a new strain of an old bug has been incubating in Hamilton, N.Y., and the 55 members of the recently renamed Colgate Alumni Council are doing their best to make sure that you and your classmates contract it.

"My first day at Colgate, I was a quarterback and pre-med," recalled Tom McGarrity '79, P'10. "My second day, I was neither one of those things." At dawn on day three, he started an economics and international relations major, became a defensive back, and laid the foundation for a lasting connection with Colgate through athletics.

Because he played football, McGarrity had heard of the Maroon Council, an organization that still supports the tenants of Andy Kerr Stadium. After graduation, he went to meetings and developed a deeper understanding of the group's mission. It wasn't long before council president Gordon Watson came looking for someone to help coordinate their annual dinner, and McGarrity earned the honor. His service on behalf of all things Colgate has continued ever since.

Catch the bug. Click Volunteer for Colgate at

Today, as an admission volunteer and Presidents' Club vice chair, he promotes the Colgate experience that challenged him in his youth and he furthers the success of Passion for the Climb: The Campaign for Colgate. McGarrity only recently retired as Univision's President of Network Sales, and he admits that he was reluctant to join the Presidents' Club's leadership team. "I didn't want to make a commitment to something so important and not be able to fulfill it from a time standpoint," he said. "But I eventually said `yes,' because you make time for important things."

Nothing surprising there: Colgate people are busy. On an ideal day, there are eight hours to sleep and eight hours to work. Volunteerism, according to one philanthropist, is what you do with the other eight. Of course, if your job title is Grad Student, the other eight are for studying.

Like many alumni who have gone before her, Jung Pak '96 didn't look back at her alma mater until she was finishing her PhD in history at Columbia University. "With a lot of younger alumni, you change jobs, you move, you're concentrating on the next steps, and Colgate seems kind of far away," she said. But, as class president, Pak helped coordinate her fifth reunion, and, once in a while, she would join a friend at the annual Presidents' Club dinner.

Where McGarrity saw an organization that demanded commitment from its leadership, Pak saw something else. "I noticed that alumni of color were not very well represented, and it got me thinking about why that was. It was one of my main motivations for becoming active in the Alumni of Color group."

Taking the initiative, she contacted AOC president Angela Moody Robinson '77, who invited her to join the group's board. Pak's work with AOC propelled her to membership on the Alumni Council and a seat on its University Relations Committee.

Every year, the Alumni Council receives more than 250 nominations for a handful of vacancies. The Nominations Committee — one of 10 standing committees — reviews each submission, looking for individuals who have demonstrated a commitment to the university through advocacy, volunteerism, and philanthropy. New members choose three committee assignments. Pak sits on the Career Services and Nominations committees, in addition to University Relations, whose mission zeroes in on the overarching goal of the entire council: to expand relationships between the university and its 30,000 living alumni.

"Through my various roles, I've been involved in so many programs that have had a less than enthusiastic response," said Pak. "It made us ask, `What are we doing wrong? Do people know what we do? Do people know how to become involved?'"

In order to address those questions, the council spent the 2006—2007 meeting season reviewing its mission and planning for the future. The process was headed up by Paul Bradley '67, whose day job involves strategic planning with organizations around the globe.

The council looked at every element of its structure, its meetings ("They were never closed," said Bradley, "but few knew they were open."), its membership, communications strategy, and more. In the end, the body changed its name from Alumni Corporation Board of Directors to the Colgate Alumni Council, which better reflects its advisory mandate. It also called for a volunteer summit — sessions with club and affinity group leaders who are intimately connected with the needs and opinions of the broader community.

"I've worked with more than 400 organizations in 39 countries," said Bradley. "There are often a lot of good intentions but poor execution. What we had here was an extraordinary group of volunteers who delivered over and over again."

A few short months after completing their review, this past January the council hosted its summit in conjunction with Real World weekend. After hearing from President Rebecca Chopp, longtime volunteers like McGarrity and council members like Pak broke into working groups, huddled around tables in Donovan's Pub. They talked about a range of issues: how they could support Colgate's myriad alumni affinity groups, use the council's new website at, "go viral" with their call for engagement, and leverage other resources on behalf of the university, its graduates, and students.

For Pak, the summit was a great example of ideas translated into action. "The council came together, formulated the plan, and implemented it." Her satisfaction helps to explain why she dedicates her "other eight," and more, to Colgate. "As a person who does history for a living, it's come full circle: I see myself in the context of the university's history — I have a sense of place."

Finding a place, returning a favor, addressing a need. Motivators and benefits of volunteerism vary, but they are indicators of the same virus. Some, like McGarrity and Bradley, have been carriers since graduation. Others, like Pak, picked it up belatedly. Knowing the important part that alumni have always played in maintaining Colgate's glowing health, the council hopes the bug will continue to spread — to people like Bruce Kohrn '81, who returned to campus for the first time in 27 years during Real World 2008.

Kohrn remembers spending as much time off campus as on it while earning his geology degree. He went to Israel with a study group and participated in the geology department off-campus field camp. He also volunteered for one semester at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. There, his one and only job was to help scientists cut through a 3-ton iron nickel meteorite the size of a file cabinet.

After graduation, he worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, toured Australia and New Zealand with an amateur rugby team, earned two master's degrees, and started his own consulting firm, specializing in environmental forensics. Recently, he joined forces with an environmental consulting company in Buffalo. "It's a bit of a niche in the field," he said. "I establish responsibility for discharges to the environment — who did it and when."

In this age of "going green," it's no wonder that Kohrn received a call from a student, inviting him to return to Colgate for Real World to talk with graduating seniors about his experiences. "I learned that other people on the panel had similar convoluted career paths. It was reassuring to each of us and, I believe, to the students," he said. "I would consider coming back in the future — I look forward to some kind of involvement, whatever it might be."

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