DEMO: What most impresses you about Columbia alumni?
PRESIDENT KIM: There’s a consistency to our alumni across the generations, grittiness—in the best sense of the word—to them. This college seems to know how to produce people who go out into the world with a can-do attitude, a strong work ethic and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
DEMO: You firmly believe that a Columbia education prepares graduates to pursue a variety of careers, and that professional success can take many forms. How have you seen this exemplified by alumni?
PRESIDENT KIM: Let me give you one example. Recently I was talking with an alumnus whose career was unrelated to his program of study at Columbia. And I was struck that his tone was almost apologetic, as if he were embarrassed to admit this. So I said to him, “But that’s great! You found a way to be successful. That’s what Columbia is about.” And he became quite emotional when I said that.
If you study film at Columbia and you win an Academy Award, that’s spectacular. But if you study film and at some point you decide you want to be in the social service world, and you do something meaningful, that is no less so. Columbia values its graduates’ success, whatever form it takes. This is a fundamental message to our alumni that I’m really proud of.
DEMO: What’s exciting about alumni coming back to campus?
PRESIDENT KIM: It was a critical gesture that we brought back five alumni as our honorary degree recipients at Commencement this past spring [see page 9]. That was meaningful for the college, and it was trans- formative for our students. So many of them said to me, “I had no idea someone that important graduated from Columbia.” They were beaming with pride because the person giving their Commencement address went to Columbia. Our students don’t really understand how many of our alumni are doing truly amazing things in the world. So that’s another focus of mine, to make sure this is communicated in a more robust way. And we’ll create other opportunities for alumni to come back.
The key word for alumni is involvement. Our new executive director of Alumni Relations and Annual Giving, Miriam Smith, will focus on this. We’d like to hear from more alumni. To what elements of their Columbia experience do they attribute their success? What parts of their education made a difference to them? Conversely, what did they not get from their education that they wish they had gotten when they were here? We’re thinking a lot more about how we can reimagine alumni engagement and involvement.