Have We Met Before? The Importance of Alum Networks

By Bonnie Stinson

  • 1
Categories: Women's Voices,

I am something of a nomad, which can make finding and joining a community fairly challenging. Many people establish support networks on a geographical basis – high school buddies, college classmates, work colleagues, neighbors.

But if you are someone who moves around a lot, how can you find ways to be in community with like-minded people?

Communities and community organizations are powerful because you must earn your position within them. In order to access their resources and collective energy, you must have identify with the community and the community must identify you, too. Without this two-way identification and shared experience, communities wouldn’t function.

Alum networks are powerful for the same reason. People who have gone through a shared experience presumably have something special in common that will unite them for the rest of their lives.

No matter what else changes in the future, this one piece of your past will remain unaltered. Sometimes, these communities are a way to hold onto the past, and if you’re not careful, they can keep you looking backward instead of forward.

For writers, who sometimes lead fairly insular lives, networks and virtual communities can mean the difference between despair and connection, stagnation and action.

I am fairly new to the Hedgebrook network, but the Smith College alum network has affected the trajectory of my life in measurable ways.

When I moved to Toronto last year, the first thing I did was reach out to the local Smith College alum club to see if there were any events coming up. One week later, I had been invited out for drinks with the club president and joined the alum book club.

I ached for intellectual validation and female community. And even though they had fancy careers and nice houses, and I was working as a full-time nanny and living in a dank basement apartment, we had all attended the same women’s college.

We had eaten at the same dining halls and gone through the same rituals (Friday tea time, Primal Scream before finals). We had all been instilled with a sense of pride in our institution and what our alums were accomplishing in the world.

Graduating from Smith meant something. It meant you had gone looking for something special in the world. Upon graduation, the sense we had was that we were joining generations of other women who continue to chase and build that something special.

Smithies are generous. I have heard countless stories about recent graduates reaching out to alums and receiving more than they could handle in return: advice, invitations, job offers, housing suggestions, and gifts.

Smithies make time for one another. We support one another, and we prioritize the work of women. We signal boost and pool our resources. Smithies spend four years examining what it means to be a woman in the world. Even though not all Smithies who graduate are women (there are some transgender students at Smith and among alums), Smithies share a lived experience of womanhood, in various forms.

After leaving the physical space of a tight-knit community, like Smith, or like Hedgebrook, it is crucial to find ways to continue to be in community with other alums.

Being a Hedgebrook writer means something. You have experienced the gift of radical hospitality. You shared something unique with your fellow writers, and you also share it with anyone who has ever been in residence at Hedgebrook.

Here’s a radical idea. What if we find ways to share the power of our community with people outside the bubble without diluting the experience of being an alum?

Every year, Hedgebrook brings approximately 40 writers to Whidbey Island. And hundreds of other women receive the sad news that we cannot offer them a residency this year.

How can we be in community with these women? How can we empower them to continue doing their important work, even though they are not alums? If our community is women writers, then how can we find ways to extend our support and magnify their voices, too?

Women must choose one another. What if rejection letters went something like this:

“Dear unsuccessful applicants: Hedgebrook can only offer so many residencies, but we still choose you. We choose your voices. We want them. Desperately, in fact…”

Because of the way I interact with my alum networks, I feel confident that people will step up for me when I need it, wherever I am in the world and whichever ideas I pursue. I feel confident talking up my institution because it has proven its value to me time and again.

For my part, I call newly admitted students, attend alum tea parties, watch the livestream Vespers service online every Christmas, and give money when I can. And in return, my network offers me career advice, a searchable database of alums, and a shared history with extraordinary women around the globe.

I chose Smith, and Smith chose me. We choose one another. And that is what being in community means. That is how networks of women become powerful, and that is how we will achieve “equality for women’s voices to achieve a just and peaceful world.”

 

bsheadshotBonnie Stinson holds a BA in Government and Development from Smith College. A global nomad, she has recently lived in Palestine, Japan and Canada but currently calls the Pacific Northwest home. She is in the middle of several hundred projects (screenplays, children’s books, poetry collections, business ideas) at the moment, all informed by intersectional identity and storytelling. Her poetry lives at seenowbenow.blogspot.com and she is actively seeking opportunities that include travel, writing, housesitting, kittens, and/or vegan cupcakes.

 

Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

 

 

 

1 Comment

  • Marcella Guerriero
    4:45 AM - 31 May, 2014

    I just discovered Hedgebrook in a documentary aired on PBS. Your inclusive encouragement is particularly timely as I faced some pretty harsh criticism of my work yesterday. Thanks for being there.

Leave a Comment