Virtual events help bring unengaged alumni back

MARTHA ZEIGLER ’74 hadn’t attended a Duke Alumni Association event since the early 1980s. The retired certified public accountant and single mother had been raising her children. “My life was too full,” she says.

But the pandemic-era shift from in-person to virtual events is drawing alumni like Zeigler, a North Carolinian, back into the Duke community. She’s not the only one; from March to June 2020, more than 6,000 alumni attended nearly 200 virtual events sponsored by alumni affairs. Thirty percent of those attendees had not been engaged with Duke in the last five years.

Ziegler joined the Duke Asian Alumni Alliance’s COVID-19 webinar, which included Anna Uehara M.S. ’14, Ph.D. ’19, a member of the Response Task Force for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I wanted to know more about the vaccine. Being retired, I had the time to do it. I wanted to hear from the horse’s mouth.”

“It’s important to be always learning something new,” she says. “We’re all in bubbles with a less than truthful picture of the world.”

Stephen McLaughlin ’72 attended eight of the Zoom events sponsored by the Duke Black Alumni, among other virtual events. “The discussion confirmed the racism that exists in this country and that we haven’t reckoned with it,” he says. McLaughlin enjoyed hearing the various points of view.

“I liked the pulling together of experts on topics of interest... So much of the discourse on social media is echo chambers, people reinforcing their own beliefs,” he says. “I would rather hear trusted sources talk about a range of issues from Supreme Court decisions to ethical issues. I think it would reduce some of the polarization.”

Dan Pitt ’71 enjoyed listening to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver ’84 talk about his career. “It was cool to see him,” he says. Pitt would like to see more events highlighting interesting people connected to Duke, including professors.

Alumni report being attracted to the combination of interesting subject matter and the convenience of participating from home. “If you are in a fairly remote area, you don’t have to drive,” Zeigler says. “I don’t have to find a parking space, walk to the location. You don’t have to dress up or get your hair done.”

Pitt says the virtual events have a broader appeal, while many of the traditional in-person events were targeted to more recent graduates and to those drawn to sports outings.

And there’s also an opportunity to stretch themselves. “Last night, I signed up for ‘Black & LGBTQ+ at Duke—A Journey in Resilience and Progress,’ ” says Zeigler. “At church, we are working on racial and economic equity. I’m not Black. I’m not gay. At first, I thought, why should I attend? But then I thought, I need to know their truth.”

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