Why Not Create a National Jesuit Alumni Association?

National Jesuit News, May, 2001

   A young woman referred to me by a local pastor, a long-time friend, recently left a youth ministry position. She was networking; making all the contacts she could, in an effort to find employment that would take advantage of her considerable skills.

     She had graduated from the University of Scranton, where as a result of the Society's state-of-the-art placement process of the 50's I had once attempted pedagogy.

   When I asked her about her background, she was clearly quite excited about the kind of education and formation she had received at our university. Her enthusiasm sparked me to try out on her a personal dream of mine.

  “What would you think about us having a national Jesuit alumni association?” I asked. “It would have to be carefully positioned so that it didn’t intrude on the turf of each school’s own alumni group. It would be totally removed from the area of finances, of course, where alumni support is so crucial. No real money would be involved; just enough pay-as-you-go to support, say, a semi-annual educational/spiritual evening with a good speaker on elements of the Ignatian vision; that sort of thing. The key would be to build the network of all the alumni of our schools in a particular metropolitan city so they could be resources to one another while refreshing their contact with Jesuit ideals.”

   She positively beamed at the idea, indicating her own willingness to be involved in any way that could make it happen. That was affirming enough, but it was the comment she added that still stays with me and encourages me to take up my pen once more to push the idea.

   She said, “You know, in various work settings or social situations over the 10 years since I graduated I have crossed paths with alumni from several Jesuit universities. And something happens; we connect in some mysterious way. There’s something special we share, even though at times it may be hard to name. An approach? A way of looking at things? A similar world-view or set of values? This man-or-woman for others thing is not just a catchy piece of public relations, it’s real. I couldn’t have imagined getting out of Scranton without some community involvement, and it changes you. And you sense it when you meet someone from Rockhurst or Gonzaga or another Jesuit school.”

   A tribute like that might give a Jesuit a shot in the arm that could last for months. But justified pride is not an adequate response. What she named represents enormous potential. The magis should impel us to use our best wits to mobilize that potential instead of letting it go unused.

   The movers and shakers in our civic world know how to multiply potential by creating links. A small personal experience of mine may make the point.

   A high-school classmate from St. Joe's Prep, Dr. Paul Sigmund, has taught political science at Princeton for many years. Some years ago he called to tell me he was going to be giving a talk at the annual dinner of the Cincinnati chapter of Princeton alumni, and it would be good to have a visit together. He invited me to be his guest at the dinner.

   The evident commitment of those 70 men, from last year’s graduates to old salts of 80 years of age, was inspiring. The energy in the room as they sang the school’s alma mater indicated more than superficial Lyndon Johnsonian ‘Amurrican’ boosterism. But it was a small piece of the business meeting after the dinner, which set my mind spinning.

   The local Princeton alumni president opened the session by reporting that the presidents of both the Harvard and Yale chapters in the city sent their regrets that they were unable to be present due to other commitments. Harvard and Yale guys at the Princeton alumni dinner? But. of course. That's how the system works! There was no mention of, say, the local Columbia alumni (much less people from some place like Penn State). In the long haul Harvard-Yale-Princeton aren’t competitors, they’re in bed together.

   Once the light went on, it was not that difficult to imagine a phone call from one Cincinnati financier (Princeton) to another (Harvard): “Say, Charlie, we’ve got a really bright young Nassau grad coming back to town with his MBA, and my gang can’t find the right opening for him; any of your guys in the market for somebody who’s top drawer? Say, by the way, thanks for sending us that young Walton fellow last year. He’s doing a fine job in our acquisitions and mergers division.”

   So here’s the scenario. Mary Kovaleski, who did a first-rate biology major at Santa Clara, has been transferred by her company to Memphis. Apart from the local manager she knows no one there. But she’s a smart member of the national Ignatian alumni, so she plugs into the association’s web-site, checks on the listings for Memphis, and discovers there are 100-plus members in that city even though the Society has no school there. Sizable chunks of members from Spring Hill and St. Louis, as expected, but surprising small clusters from Holy Cross, Fordham, and Loyola Marymount, and one woman from St. Joe's.

   Mary makes a mental note to follow up and call around, but before she can actually make a call, she receives one. It turns out that her transfer and change of address has been noted by her own Santa Clara alumni association and plugged right into the national data base, flagged for notice by the Memphis chapter. Harry McNeill, president for that year, picks up on it and calls to welcome Mary to the city, asks about her company and alerts her that Sue Rogers from Spring Hill and Bob Walsh from John Carroll work in the same division.

   And he tells her that her arrival in town is timely because in about six weeks the academic dean from Loyola of New Orleans is going to be giving a talk on recent developments in the WTO from an Ignatian social-justice perspective, which will be a great chance for her to meet a lot of other Jesuit alumni.

   And by the way, about 15 alums in the area are planning a retreat for the fall.

   With today’s technology (not to speak of emerging ones which allow the dean’s presentation to be piped in to several cities at once) the scenario is quite feasible. And it should be possible to define and charter the network in such a way as to protect the reasonable interests of the individual schools. We can walk and chew gum at the same time, can’t we?

   We have in our hands an enormous resource, a gift from the Lord to be used for the kingdom. Not to sow and nurture the seed would be tragic as well as irresponsible.

   Collaboration with the laity will remain hollow rhetoric if the Society's leadership does not facilitate their coming together to bring the wealth of their Jesuit education to its full potential. But it won’t happen totally from the bottom up. It will require leadership from the top. The Jesuit Conference and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities need to make it a top priority.

   ù George Wilson (MAR) lives in Cincinnati and serves as an organizational facilitator for Management Design Institute, mailto:gbwilson«choice.net