Zip-code solidarity in a flattened world

(National Jesuit News, November, 2005,p. 6)

A few years ago 1 was rash enough to propose that the Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States should establish a national Jesuit alumni association. Such an entity could facilitate interaction and productive collaboration among our alumni and alumnae across the country, making more visible and strong the common bond our graduates attest to. Giving all due weight to the uniqueness of our individual institutions, there is nonetheless something real and powerful about a shared identity among graduates of our network of schools. Committed as these men and women are to their own institutions, many still declare proudly that "I graduated from a Jesuit school:' Our message and much of the vision it expresses do get through.

One of the byproducts of my earlier brash proposal was that I heard about projects already underway of which I had been unaware. 1 was happy to learn of the efforts of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) office under Fr. Charlie Currie (MAR) in initiating regional gatherings of alumni from across the broader network of colleges. There are good efforts afoot, and we need to support them.

With the wisdom of hindsight, my proposal to jump to a national organization was an over-reach. We are not ready for such a dramatic development and indeed may never be. That said, 1 remain convinced that we are not reaching the potential that is ours with the existence of

this body of schools bearing our common name. If the particular vehicle of a national association is not right, what measures short of that can continue movement to a greater collective empowerment? Names carry enormous power. It’s quite possible that professional people outside our world are intuitively more aware of its corporate potential than we who are so close to individual schools within the network. But how might we leverage that name,”translate” it into visible images, and this have a broader impact even after students have left our direct care?

We may not have found the right programmatic steps yet but I hope that both Jesuits and those laymen and laywomen who collaborate in running these schools find the goal itself worth pursuing. Surely they desire that their hard labors achieve the maximum effect possible in our students’ post=graduate years and careers. One of the groups that responded most positively to the initial idea of a national association was the network of alumni directors themselves. They saw it as enabling them to provide better service to alumni scattered far beyond the city where their institution was located.

Ideas like these formed a pre-conscious backdrop as I recently began reading Tom Friedman’s latest book, “The World is Flat,” a book I believe should be required reading for anyone in the ministry of helping people prepare for the world (i.e., all of us). One of Friedman’s main threads is about the way many disparate kinds of organizations are shifting their focus from the traditional model of command and control to one based on communicating, connecting and collaborating horizontally. Often the modern organizations see the wisdom in working together on some projects while fiercely competing on others. Another key, new concept in Friedman’s synthesis is the potential for generation of ideas laterally from individual to individual across the flattened globe, with no organizational go-between, rather than from the top down. All that is needed is the informational link that enables the sharing of ideas? How might such ideas relate to our schools?

Friedman’s section on the phenomenon of “Googling” led me to consider the significance of zip codes. It made me think of my own zip code, 45230, and wonder how many Jesuit alums might be living within its boundaries right now. Since 45230 is on the east side of Cincinnati, I assumed that quite a few Xavier graduates would be living there. But with GE, Procter. and Gamble, Chiquita, Federated Department Stores, and Kroger in Cincinnati, there is a high likelihood that graduates of other Jesuit colleges or universities also reside in 45230.

Now let's imagine a few such people. Joe graduated in business from St. Louis University; Barbara was a biology major at Spring Hill. Both are in their first year of post-collegiate work, recently relocated to Cincinnati from Hannibal and Pensacola, respectively. Neither knows anyone in Cincinnati. It's intimidating enough to start from scratch in a large corporation, but having no other connections in a strange city makes it tougher still.

Suppose that upon graduation, Joe and Barbara each received a pin number giving them access to a secure website at which they could punch in the number 45230 and retrieve the names and addresses of those in that zip code who had graduated from any of our schools within the past, say, five years. Barbara might discover that in her department there was a fellow who had just moved from Spokane after completing his degree at Gonzaga, while Joe learns that a few doors away from his apartment lives Frank, who moved there from Jersey City after getting a BS in computer science from Fordham.

The possibilities for all these alums would be enhanced greatly by such an arrangement, establishing common bonds that could create more meaningful relations in their lives.

Let’s let our imaginations go one further step. Tom also lives in 45230. While pursuing political science at Xavier he developed an awareness of the importance of human community through his involvement in campus ministry projects. On the eve of his departure from Xavier he heard a homily about Jesuit identity extending beyond his own school. He also happens to enjoy a good beer party. So he gets hold of the list of recent 45230's and circulates the word that he is going to hold an informal get-together around the pool at his apartment complex. Doors open for Joe, Barbara and Frank to meet the neighborhood X grads as well as people from other Jesuit schools. Being local, Tom even succeeds in getting his college mentor, Fr. Aquaviva, to drop by for a few beers. More possible connections.

No on-going organization. No financial entanglements or possible encroachment on turfs or development fund drives. No burdensome expectations. No loss of identification with one’s school of origin. No need of central-office supervision or logistics apart from setting up the software. Just the provision of a facilitating vehicle that any individual is free to take advantage of or not.

What would be needed? An agreement to supply the data to some central server, and the creation of the password and security software. Each year, every school sends its list of graduates along to the webmaster. At graduation time each student is given the opportunity to opt in by letting his or her name be accessed; at any time it is possible to opt out by means of a few keystrokes.

At present the presidents of our institutions of higher learning meet regularly, as do the institutional advancement officers. Do the IT officers of the network meet periodically to share new possibilities for IT integration and further creative linkages across the system? If not, they should.

Organizations much larger than our network can do it. Why not us?