Relations director wants to increase student–alumni connections


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Miriam Smith, executive director of Alumni Relations & Annual Giving, said she enjoys being in a creative environment like Columbia and she likes how dedicated the campus community is to its interests.

By Campus Reporter

Working in the arts has always been part of Miriam Smith’s life. Smith, the new executive director of Alumni Relations & Annual Giving who began working under the title Aug. 3, said she knew she wanted to be an opera singer at 10 years old. Smith finished vocal music studies at Sarah Lawrence College in 2003 and received a master’s degree in music and opera in 2007 from the State University of New York at Binghamton. From 2007–2010, she worked with Columbia Artists Management, a classical artist management firm, where she was the associate manager booking various classical artists.

Though Columbia has struggled in the past with its alumni relations initiatives, Smith has specialized in working with graduates from arts-based institutions for the past several years, most recently as the manager of Alumni Engagement and Giving at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

The Chronicle sat down with Smith to discuss her artistic background, her experience connecting alumni and current students and how she plans to work with alumni at Columbia.

THE CHRONICLE: How did you find your way to Chicago?

MIRIAM SMITH: I found out I would be moving because my family relocated here this summer. I was interested in trying to find a creative institution because I love being around creatives. I am a creative, of course. I wanted to find a creative institution I could add value to. When I saw this position come up at Columbia, it intrigued me because it was not only a creative institution, but it focuses on a variety of creative industries, which is really exciting for me to learn about.

What do you hope to accomplish through your role at Columbia?

In my role, I have been brought on to build a robust alumni relations program. I am really hoping to continue the great work that has been done in previous years, but I am hoping to build on that work and focus on further engaging our alumni community within the Chicago area, but also elsewhere. It looks like implementing and creating activities and events to bond alumni with their peers and with the college community at large. We are finding ways to engage students with alumni while they are still here on campus. I am also hoping to collaborate more with the various departments across campus and to work with them to bring in alumni to work with current students. I am looking to strengthen the bond between the students and the alumni community. 

How have alumni and students been connected this year?

We have had a few activities and events this year already. We participated in Columbia Weekend with an Alumni Day. We have a large number of [alumni] that live in New York City. We just had a great alumni reception with [President and CEO Kwang-Wu] Kim last week in New York City [and] had about 60 [alumni] come out for that event. That is a big initiative for us to start looking at other markets where a large number of alumni reside and start to reactivate those regions. We also have rolled out our Alumni Roundtables program this semester, in which we bring [alumni] back to campus to speak with students. This semester alone, we have had Paul Garnes (BA ‘96), the executive producer of the film “Selma.” We have also had Michael Stahl-David (BA ‘05), a former actor, come speak to the students. We had documentarian Suree Towfighnia (MFA ‘06) come to screen her film and speak to documentary film students. Most recently, we had Aaron Nelson (BA ‘12) who is playing Simba in “The Lion King,” come and speak to dance students.

How do you think involvement with alumni might improve current students’ college experience?

I am excited about that initiative. I really thought the students felt inspired and connected with the [alumni] that were able to come and talk to them. Even [alumni] love the experience and hearing from the students about what they are currently doing and how Columbia changed or stayed the same. I think it is going to be an interesting program and something that will inspire some of the alums to impart some of their wisdom to current students. I think it enhances the student experience, department by department, but I think it is a good way for students to have a one-on-one interaction with [alumni] and to have the feeling of ‘You were once in my shoes and now you are successful in whatever field you are in.’

What do you find unique about the Columbia environment?

The students are dedicated to their fields and their industries. Students and alumni are very eager to collaborate with one another and to support each other. No matter what industry they are affiliated with, there is a lot of collaboration that happens and a lot of support, which I think is important and nice to see as a new member of the community.

How are alumni relations different at art colleges?

With alumni, it is a lot about connecting to the person’s individual experience at the college. There are a lot of similarities at Columbia, because, at the end of the day, no matter where you have gone, people have had an experience at an institution that is their own experience. From a developmental alumni relations’ standpoint, it is [my intention] to find within those individuals why they liked the college, what brought them to the college and what their experiences were at the college. It is up to me to find out, from those experiences, how to get them further engaged with the college.

When would be an effective time for the college to reach out to its alumni?

We have to start at the student level. We need to educate students that the alumni relations department is here and let them know of our goals, initiatives and activities we are now planning. Then they can understand when they become [alumni], this is something they can look forward to. Students eventually become [alumni], so starting at the student level, and letting them know we are here and what we do is really important.

How was your first semester here?

Columbia is a great place to work. I think people are dedicated to the work they do here and they are passionate about the work they do here. I would say I have seen the same thing from students and alumni. It excites me to see what is to come for the next few months, and into the future.