Which alumni matter more: famous names – or accessible faces?

Is there any point in telling our current students that Fred Perry is one of our alumni?  He’s long gone, so they won’t get to meet him.  He went to a grammar school which preceded the college, which is very different even from our current sixth form.  He’s famous for something the college doesn’t teach, so we can’t claim much credit, or fairly imply that some of his gold dust might rub off.  And if ‘world class’ means anything, he was it – so he’s not exactly an accessible role model.

How about Trevor Baylis, best known for inventing the wind-up radio, and one of the recipients of last year’s Association of Colleges Gold Award?  He is alive (good start!), went to a college – Southall College of Technology – not a school, has an active interest in education, and is a good speaker.  Much more promising, though we don’t do engineering any more, which is what he studied, and his style of hands-on invention doesn’t particularly fit our current students.

Or how about Dora Rudolf?  Dora who?  She may yet become as famous as Fred Perry or Trevor Baylis, but for the moment I am free to use her name because she features this week in a news story put out by Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College.  Dora is 23, and thrilled to have landed a job with Emirates on the conclusion of her cabin crew course at the college.  And that’s particularly valuable for the college because – like many of our students – Dora started with us learning English before progressing to her vocational course.

She’s only just become an “alumna”, of course, and may well not see herself as one.  The college needs to be sure to invite her back some time when she’s in London, so she can talk to the next generation, and inspire and excite them (and give them – and their tutors – practical tips about her job, and how to follow in her footsteps).

Do we not need a 100 Doras for every Perry or Baylis?  I think we give some prominence to Fred Perry so we get a little “gilt by association”, as it were, and I hope we can get Trevor Baylis in as an occasional speaker, for students and for business guests.

I was excited to see an article on the BBC website this week about a hugely successful former student of Croydon College.  Under the headline “The Ghanaian woman who made millions fighting skin-bleaching”, the BBC profiles Ghanaian Grace Amey-Obeng, who has made a fortune through her skincare company, and who began her career by studying beauty therapy at Croydon College.  If Croydon can get her in to talk to students next time she’s in London it’s not hard to imagine students being fascinated by her story – to say nothing of the good it will do for everyone to see an African woman triumphant, not downtrodden.

But Dora, and people like Dora, are the real gold dust.  “Ordinary” former students, not so long out of college, who’ve moved on to something which our students want to move on to too, who can talk with authority about their next steps, and inspire by example.  That’s why I was so keen to get a Future First operation set up at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, because this is exactly what they were set up to do (though originally for schools only).

I want to show our Access students someone who is a couple of steps ahead of them: someone who has started their nursing course, or who is now a nurse.  I want our media students to meet someone who has actually battled their way into a job in a sector where so much depends on contacts and luck, so they can pass on their advice (and their contacts!).  And I want our ESOL students to meet someone who started, like them, with poor (or no) English, and who has gone on to further study at college or university, or started a worthwhile job – so they can see that it is realistic to be ambitious for themselves, and not just for their children.

For me, all of that is wrapped up under “alumni relations”.  Let’s celebrate the famous names too, but it must be about more than famous names.

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About Iain Mackinnon

I am Managing Director of The Mackinnon Partnership, a niche consultancy working primarily with public sector clents in the UK, and focusing on skills and enterprise, usually in the wider context of wider economic development.
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