The New Girl on the Block – Tales from the Office of Alumni Relations

Name: Lisa Belman

Affiliation: Johns Hopkins Office of Alumni Relations


Hi there – first, here is a little bit about me and how I eventually came to work with the amazing team of people in the Johns Hopkins Alumni Relations Office. Born and raised here in Baltimore, I received my bachelor’s degree from Towson State University and my MBA from the University of Baltimore; in other words, I am not a Hopkins grad. I did however, frequently attend the Hopkins Spring Fair and had one or two beers at PJs during my college years, so that might be worth something.  After working for the Federal Reserve Bank, followed by Starbucks Coffee, I ended up in the stationery and invitation business.  I loved the business – so much so that I decided to open my own shop.

After considering several different locations, I selected the Charles Village neighborhood as the site for my new store. I thought what better place to open a stationery and card shop than near a college campus, where well educated students and faculty are longing to purchase cards and stationery and handwrite letters to mail (no not email, not text, actually mail!) to friends and family.  After writing a “this can’t fail” business plan and stocking up on the tons of great stationery and card items, I opened the doors to Signatures Charles Village in January 2006, just in time for Valentine’s Day.  Business began to grow- albeit at a slower pace than I had anticipated.  They say timing is everything and in retrospect, mine could not have been worse for my new business. As the economic recession began, plans froze for the shopping and high rise condo development slated to be across the street from my store (the still vacant lot on the corner of St. Paul and 33rd, now owned by Hopkins). Over the next year and a half I hung in there, but ultimately closed the store and shifted my focus to getting a job.  Having met so many students, faculty and staff from Hopkins – that seemed like a natural place to explore.

Within two months after closing the store, I had a position with the Johns Hopkins Alumni Relations Office, which at the time, was located in the old Steinwald Alumni House on North Charles Street.  Well, this was one cool place to work!  The building was once a family home, which was donated to the University many years ago. The building was named in honor of Osmar Steinwald, A&S ’28, the first director of Alumni Relations.

The house had been converted into office space, but the original living room complete with a fireplace and piano, was left intact, and was a favorite spot for meetings (and the occasional nap).  The house was charming, but definitely had some quirks and shortcomings, in terms of functional office. For example, you had to remember to unplug the electric heaters before you turned on the microwave or printed – otherwise you blew out the electricity on the first floor (including our Executive Director’s office). I was famous for doing this! The upstairs bathroom had a window that just wouldn’t stay closed, especially if it was windy out.  This resulted in some slight embrassment when one of our staff members was using the bathroom (on a windy day), while workmen were up on a ladder doing some repairs to the outside of the building!  We also had a huge basement, which was stuffed with supplies and decorations for chapter events, reunion and the infamous Steinwald Holiday Party.  The party had been a Steinwald tradition for many years – as I would quickly learn traditions and maintaining connections were a vital part of Alumni Relations.

In the summer of 2009, we were told that the Steinwald House had been officially declared “no longer inhabitable” and our office was being relocated. So, much like moving out of a home, we threw out, sold and packed up our stuff to move into our current digs here in the San Martin Center. We now enjoy a more modern office space and work alongside many of our Development colleagues.  Our staff meetings take place in an actual conference room – rather than a living room and there are no bathroom windows that fly open on a windy day!

One of the first things I learned when I came to work at Hopkins was just how much I didn’t know – about the University, the Institution and the Alumni Relations Office.  Nine schools, multiple campuses, a research hospital, and 160,000+ alumni; it was quite a lot to take in.  How could I know so little about this place when I had lived in Baltimore all of my life?  Luckily I was surrounded by Hopkins pros, armed with a wealth of knowledge about the school and our alumni, who were always willing to share some history and some fun stories.

Here is some of what I came to learn about Alumni Relations (AR).  Alumni Relations is under the DAR umberella – the “D” standing for Development.   The AR office provides central support for alumni of all nine Hopkins schools.  Additionally, we strive to connect all alumni to the University community, current students and one another. One of the main ways we connect our alums is through the Alumni Association, which was originally formed in 1886 (ten years after the school was founded).  All graduates are automatically considered alumni of the University.  However, only dues paying alumni are considered members of the Alumni Association (current annual dues are $50).  Please visit our website to see all the benefits of becoming a member.  All of the initiatives in our office are overseen by a voting group of alumni, called the Alumni Council (think Student Council, but all grown up).

The Forster Room – Anything is possible

Our office is responsible for many varied functions. Our frontline consists of the staff in the Forster Room, the operations center of the Alumni Relations office.  The room was named after Lou Forster, A&S ’41, ’48 (MA), who volunteered in the office for over 25 years.

The Forster Room is always buzzing with activity as Ercell Buckson, Diane Heavel, Jen Kafka and Vanessa Logan take reservations for events, process new memberships, and seamlessly handle any and every request ( no matter how peculiar) from our alumni and other constituents. Ridia Anderson, our “jack of all trades” heads this team, which falls under our Alumni Services umbrella.

More on Alumni Services – Bus Tours R’ Us

A group of Canadians were traveling by tour bus through Holland. As they stopped at a cheese farm, a young guide led them through the process of making cheese, explaining that goats’ milk was used. She showed the group a lively hillside where many goats were grazing. These, she explained, were the older goats put out to pasture when they no longer produced. She then asked, “What do you do in Canada with your old goats?”A spry old gentleman answered, “They send us on bus tours”.

– Quote posted on our office bulletin board

We would certainly never call any our alumni “old”; most of them are hardier and more adventurous than we are, especially when it comes to traveling. Our Alumni Journeys travel program offers trips all over the world, while our Alumni College program offers shorter educational trips a little closer to home.  Both programs are run by Marguerite Ingalls Jones and Lisa Auchincloss.  In June 2009, Marguerite travelled with a group of alumni to a dude ranch in Dubois, Wyoming, accompanied by history Professor, Ron Walters.  Amy Brokl, who holds a dual position in Alumni Relations and the Admissions Office and spearheads our Legacy Admissions programs, is also a part of our Alumni Services team.

The Chapter Team – details, details, details

We currently have chapters of the alumni association in over 20 domestic cities and more than a dozen international clubs (smaller versions of chapters). Chapters are formed in areas where there are a substantial about of alumni living in a region.  Each chapter holds several events a year, including everything from wine tastings to museum visits, allowing alums an opportunity to meet one another and have an entertaining afternoon or evening.  Our talented chapter team including Angela Baldwin, Deborah Saunders, Jocelyn Lynch and Mike Brooks, are the men and women behind the curtain for all of our events.  They plan all the details and frequently travel to the events themselves to ensure that everything runs smoothly.

We love our students and young alums!

Our Student and Young Alumni Programs are run by Justin Fincher and Tricia Shalka, along with several student interns.  This team orchestrates the highly successful TASTE (Take a Student to Events) program, which connects students and alumni with similar interests, the Student Ambassadors Program and the newly formed Student Alumni Society.  Basically, if it has the word “student” or “young alumni” in it – this team is all over it!  Justin and Tricia also help to organize the very popular young alumni party (are you starting to see the pattern?) during Reunion and Homecoming Weekend, which was sold out last year.  And speaking of Reunion….

Reunion & Homecoming – you haven’t aged a bit

There is no other time of year in our office that is more fun and more work than Alumni Weekend (traditionally known as reunion and homecoming weekend).   The power team behind this always amazing and nostalgic weekend is Pat Conklin, Judy Fusting, Michell Dorsey-Jackson and Stephen Walsh.  They plan year round for this weekend, tirelessly working with each class committee to create a special feeling of homecoming for each and every alumnus. During the actual weekend, all of DAR pitches in and reconnects with our alumni while making sure that all the event details are falling into place.  Alumni Weekend 2011 is scheduled for April 29- May 1.

Wanted: one really cool Executive Director

As of this writing, interviews are being conducted for our Executive Director position.  Sandra Gray, our previous Executive Director, recently retired and left big shoes to fill.  In the meantime, Bonnie Horning is successfully juggling a wide variety of office responsibilities and Marietta Carandang is keeping our expenses on track and our budget balanced!

Marketing & Membership – so many benefits, so little time

Last but not least, is my own hardworking team – Marketing and Membership, which includes Kirsten Lavin, Kristie Collins and me.  Our team maintains the Alumni Association website, and Facebook page, spearheads the membership campaign, produces the Alumni Section of the Johns Hopkins Magazine and assists with any writing and marketing tasks for our office – all with a smile (most days at least)!

I think that says it all for me.  As I reflect back, I realize that I have found through my job at Hopkins, not just a new career – but a new perspective.  Although I was extremely disappointed that my business venture did not work out, I feel fortunate to have landed here at Hopkins, in the warm embrace of my fabulous colleagues in Alumni Relations.

  • By Admissions_Amy, December 9, 2010 @ 3:20 PM

    Lisa! I’ll admit I had no idea how you found your way to AR… Terrific story and wonderful blog – thanks for introducing the HI audience to our lively office (and good-looking colleagues!)

  • By ARSW, December 10, 2010 @ 9:13 AM

    Really enjoyed that Lisa! Thanks for sharing

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