In 1995 Laura Wayland was working for a continuing education program at the University of Dayton. She liked the job but wasn’t sure it was the right fit for her — she’d had the same doubts about her previous positions at a national fraternity and as an investment banker. On one particularly tough day she decided to take a walk around campus to clear her head. It was a walk that would ultimately help reveal her true calling.
“I happened to run into the rector of the university, and he said, ‘Laura, you look troubled. How can I help you?’” Wayland recalls. “He told me that when he was feeling that way, he would go to St. Mary’s Hall and look at the pictures of the founders and the people who came before us.”
And so she did. While at St. Mary’s, she also happened to see a jobs posting board, and one listing caught her eye: associate director of alumni relations. The application deadline was that very day, and with only an hour to spare, she managed to submit her résumé.
“That’s when I went from having a career to living a way of life,” she says. “I love the feeling you get when you see alumni come back to visit in the summer and the campus becomes theirs again, or when they come back for a reunion, and you see that embrace after 20 years apart. It just makes you think, ‘Wow, I had a part in creating that magic.’ ”
Wayland’s passion for connecting alumni with their university and one another led her to Evanston, where she became the executive director of the Northwestern Alumni Association in April. Her background includes seven years in alumni relations at Dayton, five years as director of alumni relations at Ohio Wesleyan University and, most recently, five years as senior director of alumni relations and reunions campaigns at Georgetown University.
Since her arrival at Northwestern, Wayland has had the chance to meet with scores of alumni volunteers and other graduates. She said she has been impressed by the pride they take in their University and their commitment to helping support its progress.
“Northwestern alumni ask what more they can do for their University rather than what more the institution can do for them,” Wayland says. “When a university taps into that like Northwestern does, it’s very powerful; you can accomplish so much more when it’s a large community working together.”
One thing Wayland recognizes is that Northwestern’s large community is also changing, with increasingly diverse needs, interests and geographic locales. That presents what Wayland says is the alumni association’s most important challenge in the years to come.
“This is a time when alumni associations need to evolve, or our purpose is going to expire,” she says. “Alumni aren’t going to see a need to be a part of an alumni association where there isn’t a mutual benefit or where it does not work around their busy schedules. And as we evolve into a global community, our alumni association has to become global as well. Just because something works in New York City doesn’t mean it’s going to work in Seoul.”
Part of the NAA’s strategy to meet these challenges is the launch of Our Northwestern, the University’s new online community that allows alumni to find friends and classmates, join social groups and communities, find career opportunities and interact and share with fellow alumni.
The NAA’s mission of fostering lifelong learning has also been bolstered by new massive open online courses, or MOOCs, available through the University’s partnership with Coursera. The partnership will allow alumni to take courses at no cost from faculty across Northwestern and explore diverse topics ranging from the environment to entrepreneurship.
But the evolution goes beyond new programming and platforms. Much as she embraced a new way of life on that fateful walk in Dayton, Wayland would like the NAA to embrace a new way of looking at its mission and its place within the larger University.
“I envision transforming us from being about what we do to being about what we stand for,” Wayland says. “Rather than thinking in terms of our job descriptions or volunteer positions, each of us at the alumni association should see our main objective as connecting alumni to the University and one another and engaging a community that will move Northwestern forward. We want to be the source for alumni to find their social outlets, make their philanthropic gifts and work to advance the next generation of Wildcats.”