Alumni engagement turns creative

From trivia nights to Grandparents U at home, school spirit gets a virtual boost

By Terri Finch Hamilton
From Centralight Winter 2020

It's '90s trivia night for CMU alumni, and the questions come fast, so stay on your toes.

Whose ear did Mike Tyson take a bite out of during a boxing match?

How many Spice Girls were in the group? What year did "Friends" premiere on NBC?

Monica takes the lead, then Jennifer steals it with a question about the Goosebumps book series.

It's a spirited alumni event, but there's no clinking of beer glasses or communal munching of chicken wings and sliders.

This gathering is virtual — just like all alumni events since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March.

Still, there's a ton of alumni fun going on — just grab your laptop.

Trivia not your thing? How about a whiskey tasting and distillery tour on Zoom?

Interested in a Facebook group for '90s CMU grads? More than 10,000 alumni were, and the group is growing.

Even the popular Grandparents U, an event that brings more than 200 alumni and their grandchildren to campus for three days of fun each summer, was virtual. But the fun was real.

'We've got this

Brittany Milan, '11, '14, Katie Neu, '16, '19, and Summer Sharrard, '18, are CMU's effervescent alumni engagement team. They plan all sorts of alumni fun, from rousing Detroit Red Wings games to alumni cruises, tours and tastings.

They thrive on meeting and greeting.

But in March, they got the disappointing news: No more in-person events for a while.

"Suddenly, we had to find a different way to engage people," Sharrard said. "Then, the creative light bulb came on. We said, 'We've got this. We can do it.' "

Grandparents U — in a box

Grandparents U is three days of fun on campus filled with tie-dyeing T-shirts, taking cool classes and bunking in the residence halls. "Instead of canceling, we brought the experience to the grandparents," Milan said.

They sent Grandparents U to families, delivered in boxes and online. Plain white T-shirts and packets of maroon and gold dye. Recipes for dessert pizzas. A slew of activity ideas, from a neighborhood wildlife safari to at-home bowling.

Christine Kohn, the grandmother of seven, was up for it. She and several grandkids had attended the event on campus in the past. It was always a highlight of the summer.

"I figured they just wouldn't have it this year," said Kohn, whose daughter, Laura Montoye, '14, is her CMU connection. "When I heard it would be virtual, I thought, all that neat stuff we did in person — how can we rival that in our own home? But I'm a glass-half-full person. I thought, 'Let's see what they have up their sleeve.'"

She and her husband Tom hosted grandkids Noah, 10, and sister Charlotte, 8, for two days of fun at their Greenville, Michigan, home. Then they did it all over again for granddaughter Emily, 9.

They tie-dyed shirts, crafted fleece blankets, painted rocks and flower pots, watched movies, munched popcorn and giggled around a campfire — all at their own pace.

Noah squeezed a bunch of lemons and baked his first-ever lemon bread.

When life hands you lemons, you bake lemon bread, right?

"The main thing is we were together," Kohn said. "We loved the time spent with them, the jokes made, the laughter. To watch them learn things was a treat.

"It's more fun to be on campus, of course, but we had a great time."

Whiskey tasting on Zoom

How do you attend a whiskey tasting and distillery tour without going to where the booze is?

Hello, Zoom.

Detroit City Distillery and CMU's alumni engagement team brought the tasting to 60 alumni from Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and California.

They sent CMU-branded rocks glasses to participants, along with a shopping list of cocktail ingredients.

The distillery's "whiskey factory" tours are usually in person, led by brand ambassador Garrett Passiak. But he's game for video tastings, too, showing alumni how to appreciate a good whiskey by first smelling the layered scents of it on their hands before they take a sip.

They made cocktails first, to enjoy during the tour.

Garrett walked them through it. No bar tools? No problem. Muddle that orange peel with a kitchen utensil.

Alumni sporting maroon and gold sipped their drinks, asked questions and typed greetings to each other in the chatbox.

"Everybody was connecting and saying, 'Fire Up!'" said Alyssa Young, '14, distillery events planner. "It was a really neat experience.

"They couldn't be here in person to touch, smell and taste, but it's nice to know we can still engage and connect in all these ways we might not have thought were possible," Young said. "One day, we'll all be able to get back together again."

Facebook fun

Mary Hutter, '98, was feeling nostalgic about CMU one night at her home outside Seattle and looked for a '90s CMU alumni Facebook page. "I wanted to see pictures and memories from college," she said. But there wasn't one.

So she started it. That was in June. By August, it had 10,000 members.

"I think it grew so fast because of COVID," said Hutter, a video editor. "People need more interaction with other people. And everybody's home more, so they have time to dig out old photos from college."

(Cue the curling-iron bangs.)

"CMU was a really great time in my life," Hutter said. "I found myself. I found my people." She even found her future husband, Seth Triezenberg, '00, at Larzelere Hall.

No talk of politics or coronavirus is allowed, Hutter said. But post all you want about Big Burrito or The Bird.

Not a '90s alum? Groups for other decades have since sprung up.

Something for everybody

Other virtual events have focused on alumni needs, from a panel discussion on how to job search during a recession to resources and tech tips for teachers suddenly faced with teaching online.

The alumni engagement trio called on departments all over campus to contribute tips.

Like 10-year-old Noah, everybody's putting lemons to good use.

"Not seeing alumni in person has been really difficult for me," Neu said. "But we love being able to engage alumni in this way, to see how happy people are to see each other. It's so nice to have some sense of normalcy."

'This is in our wheelhouse now'

"When we return to face-to-face events, whenever that will be, we'll still do virtual events, too," Sharrard said. "This is in our wheelhouse now.

"With a virtual event, you can be the only alum in a city and still attend," she said. "That kind of contact with alumni is really cool to see."

During these times of social distancing, their mission to connect with alumni is even more important, Neu said.

"Folks feel that Central is their home," Neu said. "You meet lifelong friends, maybe your life partner, your children's godparents. It's a huge, shared experience. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

"Central stays with you for life."

Oh, and in case you were playing along:

Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield's ear during a boxing match.

There were five Spice Girls.

"Friends" premiered on NBC in 1994.

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