The Oswego Alumni Association ensures the bonds among 78,000 alumni remain strong.
By Margaret Spillett
Commencement Eve for nearly 90 years, SUNY Oswego alumni have ceremoniously passed the torch of learning from one generation to the next, with the charge—penned in 1936 by then Chair of the English Department Dr. Lida S. Penfield ’19—to carry the “light transferred from our school, through us, to others.” As light passes from one candle to the next during the Commencement Eve Torchlight Ceremony, the newly minted Oswego graduates one by one add their strength to the hearth of their alma mater so that “its glory may never be dimmed.”
In many ways, the Oswego Alumni Association serves as the keeper of the torch for our nearly 78,000 alumni today. Through regional events, Greek and campus reunions, posts to social media
or distribution of the OSWEGO Alumni Magazine, the OAA rekindles alumni’s passion for their alma mater, helps them maintain their connections to each other and keeps the light on for them in King Alumni Hall—their home on campus.
“Our alumni association plays a vital role on this campus,” says College President Deborah F. Stanley. “We see it as an integral partner in connecting our powerful alumni network to the college community and the activities unfolding on campus. One of my favorite Dr. Edward Austin Sheldon quotes is, ‘We have one interest and one aim—to raise this school to its highest degree of usefulness.’ The Oswego Alumni Association is the embodiment of Dr. Sheldon’s wish. The Oswego Alumni Association helps collect the expertise and passion of our alumni as they give their time, talent and treasure to support our students and carry forward our academic mission.”
Six priorities have fueled the OAA’s success throughout its history: record-keeping, communication, fundraising, alumni services, reunions and alumni recognition (See Programs Snapshot), says Kay Benedict Sgarlata ’65, an author and a retired teacher from Syracuse who served on the board of directors for years, including as president from 1990 to 1995.
“I really don’t think the mission or goals of the alumni association have changed much throughout its history,” Sgarlata says. “Every man and woman who came to Oswego and graduated are members of this club. Our educational experience and love for Oswego unite us.”
Edith Maloney Knight ’50, a retired elementary teacher and a long-time former board member from Oswego, has witnessed the dramatic growth the alumni association has had in her lifetime. She recalls a small group of Oswego-area alumni gathering for socials, organizing alumni trips to wineries and tourist attractions and occasionally pairing up with admissions staff to recruit high school students to Oswego.
Volunteers have always been a vital part of the OAA, and Knight coordinated fellow alumni and students to work the phones for the annual telefund, remembering to write down any address change or professional and personal updates that alumni shared with them.
“This was before computers,” Knight says. “We had stacks of paper and files that we made sure got passed on to try to keep the files up to date. But people move, women get married and people change jobs. Record-keeping is never done.”
Nor is there any pause in changes on a college campus.
During Knight’s years on the alumni board, the OAA created gift club designations to recognize alumni who contribute to The Fund for Oswego at specific levels. The association also hired employees to enhance what the alumni volunteers had accomplished.
SUNY Oswego, founded as a normal school, remained a college exclusively for teacher education until 1962, evolving after that point to its present configuration as an institution of higher learning with four primary colleges: the School of Business, the School of Education, the School of Communication, Media and the Arts, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Growth and diversification of programming resulted in alumni from a broad range of academic disciplines working in equally diverse careers throughout the world.
Adding A Fresh Spark
“We reached out to those alumni who were in communication with the alumni office on a regular basis or who were donors to serve on the board,” Sgarlata says. “Our board took on a new dimension of a greater worldview. We had people in public relations, administration, banking, law and other fields. We made major leaps to become a very professional board, with members who attended meetings consistently, shared their expertise generously and supported the college financially.”
For the past 30 years, Betsy Oberst has worked for the association, and she currently serves as its executive director and as associate vice president of alumni relations and stewardship.
“The board is the face of our 78,000 alumni and advises us on how best to serve those graduates,” Oberst says. “The members represent a variety of majors, occupations, regional locations, class years and backgrounds. We have a terrific group of volunteers who have worked hard to develop a thoughtful strategic plan to guide our work.”
Jennifer Shropshire ’86, a management science graduate and a partner at Edward F. Swenson & Associates Inc. in Philadelphia, said she joined the board in 1997 during the initial period of diversification and has been part of creating three strategic plans for the association.
“Every strategic plan has gotten better both in terms of focus, and also in terms of the association’s ability to achieve the objectives called for in the plan,” says Shropshire, who served as president from 2004 to 2008 and remains active as a board member and as the national chair of The Fund for Oswego with the College Foundation. “We now have a board that I have always wanted. We talk about measurable outcomes as a matter of course.”
Current Board President Keith Chamberlain ’87, a communications graduate and the director of business development at EDUCAUSE in Boulder, Colo., said before he got involved with the association, he thought it simply produced the magazine and organized reunion.
“Now, I realize that association board and staff do so much more—GOLD events, Alumni-In-Residence, NYC Career Connections, Athletic Hall of Fame luncheon, communication studies dinner and on and on,” Chamberlain says. “We’re always looking to develop professional and meaningful interactions with a broad group of alumni so that Oswego remains an important part of the post-college experience.”
He outlines the OAA’s current goals to:
-Build and sustain a strong infrastructure, including the staff and the board of directors
-Engage alumni and friends in activities and programs
-Position the association as a value-added component on campus and within the broad alumni network
-Help build a culture of alumni supporting the college by sharing their personal, professional and financial gifts
Oberst says she and the staff have been working with Chamberlain and the other board members to embrace change and be ready to adapt to the current and future needs of their alumni members.
“We are continuously looking to create opportunities that are meaningful to our alumni,” Oberst says. “For example, during the downturn in the economy, we tried to connect alumni to career services support and to other alumni working in their fields.”
Burning Ever Brighter
As higher education evolves with more online program offerings and technologies that enable remote learning and connection, the association will revise and update its services and events for alumni who may never have stepped foot on the physical campus.
“The type of programs, services and other ‘traditional’ activities will certainly have to adapt to the new norms, whatever they may be,” Chamberlain says. “Our staff will need to accommodate the new reality, especially as consumers continue to adapt to the ‘marketplace of me’—a world filled with custom, person-specific experiences.”
However, past and present OAA leaders agree that nothing will take the place of meaningful personal and professional relationships.
“Social media keeps recent alumni far more united than we ever were from the Class of 1965,” Sgarlata says. “But there is nothing that replaces sitting down next to somebody, sharing stories and spending quality time with them. That goes way beyond the sound bites available on social media.”
Chamberlain concludes: “No matter what the future looks like, the Oswego Alumni Association will always be about ensuring connections with our growing numbers of alumni are made, kept and nurtured.”
And, alumni can take comfort knowing that the OAA will be keeping the torch to ensure its flame never wanes.
Reporting about the history of the association was pulled from Dorothy Rogers’ book SUNY College at Oswego: Its Second Century Unfolds (1988, The College).
1861 Oswego Primary Teachers Training School founded by Edward Austin Sheldon
1867 First alumni meeting held in Normal Hall
1886 Oswego Normal School Alumni Association established at the college’s 25th anniversary; first reunion held
1910 New York State purchased 27 acres along Lake Ontario for Oswego Normal School
1936 First Commencement Eve Torchlight Ceremony held
1960 Distinguished Alumnus Award first presented
1961 College centennial celebrated
1973 Fundraising programs began
1973 First full-time alumni relations director Robert Sweeney hired
1975 First Annual Fund campaign provided means for 19 scholarships and part of a graduate assistantship
1977 Steven D. Sucher ’74 named association director
1979 Richard Collins ’77 named interim director
1980 Patricia Ruppert Brown ’72 named association director
1981 Oswego Alumni Association becomes officially incorporated
1983Margaret “Peg” Lowery ’74 named association director
1985 Senior Challenge program introduced; the statue of Edward Austin Sheldon refurbished as a senior class gift
1986 OAA centennial celebrated with college’s 125th anniversary
1987 Alumni Mentor program introduced (now Alumni Sharing Knowledge ASK)
1990 Welcoming Torchlight Ceremony initiated
1991 OAA moved to King Alumni Hall
1994 Division of Alumni & University Development established
1994 Alumni-In-Residence (AIR) program initiated
1995 Betsy Oberst named association director
1996 First Return to Oz Alumni of Color reunion held
1997 Golden Alumni Society established
2001 NYC Career Connections launched
2001 Athletic Hall of Fame established
2006 Future Alumni Network (FANs) program initiated
2008 Graduates Of the Last Decade (GOLD) program launched
2008 First capital campaign Inspiring Horizons reaches $23.85 million, thanks to more than 22,000 donors
2008 GOLD Welcome to the City series launched
2008 Reunion Weekend crowds reached record heights, totaling near 1,400 people
Affinity Group Reunions
Alumni Awards Program
Alumni Records Management
Alumni Sharing Knowledge (ASK)
Athletic Hall of Fame
Backpack to Briefcase
Future Alumni Network (FANs)
Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD)
Legacy Student and Parent Reception
Lunch and Learn webinars
NYC Career Connections
Regional Events Program
Senior Class Program
Lake E-ffect e-newsletter, monthly, reach 37,425
Parents e-newsletter, monthly Sept. through May, reach 1,500+
ASK mentors e-newsletter, quarterly, reach ~575
Oswego Social Digest, monthly, reach 37,210
OSWEGO Alumni Magazine (print and online), three times a year, reach 89,275
Total annual email campaigns 348; reach ~2 million+
Twitter 1,808 followers
Facebook 4,167 likes
LinkedIn 5,376 group members
Then & Now
108 in 1867
78,000 in 2014
Bulletin (Magazine) Mailing List
3,000 in 1950
89,275 in 2014
1867: Nearly All Within New York State
2014: All 50 U.S. states; more than 40 other countries
66% NYS • 4% Fla. • 2.5% N.C.
2.2% N.J. • 2% Calif. • 2% S.C.