Over 500 alumni and family members attended the Back2B'ham Alumni and Friends Weekend, held at Western Washington University for the first time since 2017. The event, hosted by the WWU Alumni Association from May 19 to 21, included guest speakers, bike tours, live music, food trucks and many other activities.
“We're seeing pre-COVID numbers,” said Victoria Martinsen, director of alumni engagement at Western. “Nationally, the trends have been that in-person events are not seeing the attendance post-COVID that they had pre-COVID.”
Back2B’ham allows alumni and their families to reconnect with friends, faculty and the Bellingham area. This year, it featured returning events and new activities – the carnival in Red Square and opportunities to attend special classes and lectures returned by popular demand. New this year was a keynote address by actress and activist Ashley Judd, who kicked off the weekend on Friday.
“The whole design of the weekend was really a lot of niche programming,” Martinsen said. “The idea is that really there's something for everyone.”
The weekend took Martinsen and the Alumni Association more than six months of planning.
“You start with just an idea, you kind of throw things on the wall and see what sticks,” she said. “No idea is too crazy.”
Nabeel Chowdhury is a Western marketing alumnus of the class of 2012 who attended several events at the Back2B’ham weekend, including a get-together for alumni of the marketing program and current marketing students.
“We kind of talked a little bit about what we wish we had known when we were in school and that stuff in terms of just alumni feedback, and being able to mentor and give back a little bit to students coming up,” Chowdhury said. “That was really fun for me, and then just honestly, being on campus – there was food, there was music, it was good vibes – can't be upset coming back to Bellingham.”
Bryan Page graduated from Western in 2003 and now serves on the Alumni Association Board of Directors.
“It's fun to stay connected to try to help other alums stay connected to the university which in turn I think helps students connect to alums outside of the campus atmosphere, to help them in figuring out what they want to do and get started in whatever career path they choose,” Page said.
Universities throughout Washington hold alumni events to keep people connected with their alma mater. At Central Washington University, the Alumni Association emphasizes experience-oriented events from homecoming football games to small-scale, cozy pub gatherings. They also utilize active communication channels and provide volunteer opportunities.
“Alumni offices get a bad rep across the nation that they're always asking for money,” said Casey Ross, CWU's director of alumni. “While money is always helpful for the students and the programs here, we really are looking to build ways that people can give in other ways besides opening their pocketbooks.”
Alumni connections can benefit current students too, he said.
“Social capital and the professional connections that are just built in by your common connection to your school, whether it's Central or Western, is gold,” Ross said.
Chowdhury works in recruiting and uses his alumni status to hire other Western graduates.
“I have been fortunate enough over the last decades, probably every year to get two to five Western grads jobs coming out of school,” he said. “Most of those come from networking.”
Chowdhury was hired at his first job because of a connection that he made at a Western career fair.
“I can kind of go back every year and be like ‘Guys, you got to network,’” he said. “It's not too early to start … because all we're talking about is building relationships.”
Martinsen's hope for the weekend was to show current students that their relationship with Western will extend beyond their four-year degree.
“I really love how graduation is referred to as commencement, which means the beginning because when you graduate, it's not like your relationship with the institution has ended,” Martinsen said. “It's just changed. Commencement is just the beginning of a new relationship with the institution.”
The weekend was also designed to showcase the affinity-based identities Western hopes students develop during their time at the university.
“It's a very intimate kind of personal program, which I think reflects how our Western students and alumni relate to Western,” Martinsen said. “Which is why [Back2B’ham] looks the way it looks with all these varied activities, and that, I think, is what makes it so special.”
Ava Glaspell (she/her) is a campus news reporter for The Front this quarter. She is a first year journalism/news ed major. Outside of reporting, Ava enjoys climbing, eating ice cream, and jumping into the ocean. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.