Road Tour

Road Tour

UC San Diego brings a piece of campus to far-flung alumni, parents, and friends.

Mark Waxman is one of those alumni who had left his college days behind. After graduating from the University of California, San Diego, in 1970 with an economics degree, he went on to the UC Berkeley School of Law and then lived in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., before moving to Boston a decade ago.

Waxman had nothing against UC San Diego, but he was about as far from engaged as he could get. “I might have paid dues now and then to be [an alumni association] member,” he says. Even on business trips to San Diego he didn’t think much about the school.

That changed in 2005 when he heard about an event coming to town. Part of the inaugural year of the UCSD Near You program, it featured Chancellor Marye Anne Fox, who had just joined UCSD. Waxman pondered his lack of involvement in his alma mater. “I thought that I should support public education and that I should support an institution that had done a lot for me,” he recalls. “I thought I’d go see who the new chancellor was and find out what UCSD was all about.”

The evening made an impression. Waxman learned that despite budgetary issues, the university was “still able to maintain its national status as a highly ranked, highly sought-after institution.” The event also reminded him of the positive experiences he’d had at the school.

Before long, Waxman was working with the university to plan a future UCSD Near You event in the area, which he would host at the law firm Foley & Lardner, where he is a partner. He hosted another event the following year and learned about an endowed scholarship program?which he saw as “a chance to put more than an oar in the water.” Why not? UCSD made a mark on Mark, and now he has made a mark on UCSD, through the Waxman Family Alumni Leadership Scholarship, created with his sister Leslie, UCSD ’75.

Waxman is just one of a group of alumni re-engaging with the university through UCSD Near You. While program participation has led to other gifts as well, that’s not the point. “The driver for this is not fundraising?it’s engagement,” explains Armin Afsahi, assistant vice chancellor for Alumni Affairs. “Whether they engage with us as an advocate, as a philanthropist, or whether they become volunteer leaders in other ways, all of that is good for us.”

As it would be for any institution. But with UCSD being just shy of 50, its alumni base is small. Not to mention, 65 percent of alumni reside outside of San Diego County. “It’s challenging, sometimes not feasible, for them to come to events,” says Afsahi, who is also executive director of the UCSD Alumni Association. He refers to the university’s graduates as “a curious bunch,” and research had shown that they are attracted to provocative content.

This combination of factors led to the launch of UCSD Near You, which started with Fox’s 2005 tour and has in subsequent years featured prominent faculty, campus leaders, and current students traveling to various cities?with event titles such as “Insights into the 9/11 Commission,” “Superhero Science: How Biology Can Save the World,” and “Card Counting: Down to a Science.” Event attendance has ranged from 30 to 150, and Fox says the program has drawn many alumni who had never attended a university-sponsored event before.

From the get-go, administrators knew these road trips would take investment and careful planning. The development and communications teams created a brand, and the UCSD Near You logo has appeared on registration materials, reminders, and other communication from the beginning?offering “a complete look and feel at every touch point,” Afsahi explains.

During the initial eight-city tour, Fox says, “I was able to learn about alumni who are making a difference in their communities and find out about their experiences at UC San Diego. I was eager to hear their ideas about the future of their alma mater.” One memorable moment occurred in New York City at the Royalton Hotel. Fox recalls, “I was truly overwhelmed and delighted to hear how proud our alumni are of UC San Diego?whether they are five or 25 years out of college.” As attendees expressed gratitude for the institution reaching out to them through the reception, she realized the program is “rekindling longstanding relationships with alumni?a key component to the success of any higher education institution.”

At the Boston event, Waxman recalls that “giving was mentioned but in a diplomatic way. Clearly it wasn’t the key purpose of the meeting.” For the first event he hosted, the program team secured the speaker for a discussion on stem cell research and sent invitations. He estimates a few dozen attendees came to hear about the school, the topic, and each other. They also came to realize that “not everyone [in the Boston area] had to go to Harvard or MIT.”

For every event, Afsahi says the team strives to “create an energy and synergy between the venue, speakers, and host.” They are typically held midweek, so attendees can come after work and be out by 8 p.m. “We have alums that got their master’s [degrees] and doctorates from Stanford, Harvard. ? They begin to see us reaching out to them with the same level of class,” he says. It’s the kind of impression that can get alumni back to campus in the culture. “We benefit from San Diego being a destination city. It’s not a bad place to come for a weekend or a week,” Afsahi points out.

The selection of UCSD Near You destination cities was a logical one based on alumni density and strength of local alumni volunteers, Afsahi explains. In the future, he envisions 15 to 20 events annually, with two events in some current destinations as well as new ones added.

The program has grown, but the dollar investment hasn’t. The $65,000 annual operating budget is funded by the External Relations department, under which Development and Alumni Affairs reside. Those offices split the cost, with Development contributing $15,000 more the first year. The single program staffer is Malinda Danziger, originally a part-timer.

The budget must stretch far, with both travel and event costs. Road tours might conjure up images of a whole group traveling by bus or van, equipment in tow, but that hasn’t exactly been the case. Program staff try to piggyback events with faculty and administrator travel for research or professional development, Afsahi says, with trips tending to involve a single overnight stay for the speaker plus one or two staff. Initially the team rented basic equipment?projector and laptop?at each venue. Realizing the potential cost savings, a compact projector and laptop, suitable for travel, were purchased.

Local event hosts have also helped cut costs. There was the Los Angeles alumna who secured an exclusive beach club. “She not only got the venue under her own membership but paid for the catering,” Afsahi says. Another alum offered to take care of everything.

As UCSD Near You has become more well-known, the team has been encouraging regional alumni clubs to take on a more active role in the design and management of program functions, Afsahi says. “The more we deepen the engagement of our volunteers, the more successful we are in our programs.”

Engaging attendees through fresh, thought-provoking content is the first step in attracting volunteers. Fox attributes the program’s success “in large part to the university’s stellar faculty members and alumni speakers?from Nobel laureates to Tony Award winners.”

Judy Dolan, an award-winning costume and set designer and professor of design in UCSD’s Theatre and Dance Department, was a draw for one 2007 event. Titled “When Sequins and Spangles Are Not Enough,” it coincided with Dolan’s own road tour?to New York City for the opening of LoveMusik, the Broadway musical for which she was working on costume design. Dolan’s design assistant on the show, a former UCSD grad student, also participated in the event, which included a preview of the play and a reception where Dolan presented to 47 attendees on how a costume designer creates fresh, contemporary, and cutting-edge costumes.

“It was a chance to include the audience in some of the behind-the-scenes hard work that goes into a Broadway show. It’s not all beaded glamour,” Dolan says. Attendees learned about the detailed work, such as created 100-plus costume renderings for LoveMusik. “The Theatre and Dance program at UC San Diego is among the top three in the nation, so there seemed to be a lot of pride in learning that their alma mater is making such a great impact in the arts world across the nation?and even the globe,” she recalls.

In terms of finding UCSD Near You speakers to make an impact, Afsahi says the program team has gotten “overwhelming response” from interested faculty. In the past, a dean might simply vouch for each speaker’s crowd-wowing abilities. While Afsahi insists there have been no regrets, in some instances it would have helped to know the speakers’ strengths in advance. A speakers’ interest profile will now help in identifying faculty with the desired criteria, such as an intriguing research area and the ability to convey thoughts well.

The effort will also help in matching up speakers for joint presentations. A dual-speaker event held in Northern California last year, “Creating the Green Collar Leaders of Tomorrow,” was one of the program’s best attended, Afsahi shares. An attendance booster for all events is that they’ve been “first-class,” he says. “We’ve never compromised on the elegance and professionalism.”

As UCSD Near You moves forward, Afsahi anticipates more regional events based on alumni affinities. To that end, his office hired new assistant directors for each academic division of campus; each is tasked with learning more about the alumni in an academic area and then developing regional events tailored to their interests.

As an event winds down, Afsahi has noticed an “incredible buzz that takes over the room.” Rather than dampen that with on-site evaluation forms, attendees later get an e-mail asking for their thoughts. They’re also asked if this was their first UCSD-sponsored event, and for 39 percent of 2006 attendees, it was. “That was one of our critical milestones in knowing we were on the right track,” says Afsahi.

Personal follow-up efforts are also made. In 2005 after Waxman had expressed interest in reconnecting with his alma mater, a development officer reached out and helped secure his scholarship gift.

UC San Diego may well one day receive an additional Waxman gift?in the form of another local advocate. With plans to retire after his teenage daughter graduates from high school, Waxman is seriously considering a move back to San Diego, perhaps even to the very Del Mar neighborhood where he lived as an undergrad. Speaking of Del Mar from his Boston office on a dreary October day, he says, “I’m not sure it gets any better than that.”