Virtual alumni events help community members stay in touch
By Kathy Andrews
In a typical year, many alumni, families, and other members of the Trinity community make their way to campus for different occasions. Family Weekend, Homecoming, and Reunion are among the top draws. Some visit to attend a lecture, performance, or film; participate in a panel discussion; catch up with a professor or coach; accompany a family member on an admissions tour; or cheer on a favorite Bantam team.
But starting in spring 2020, when COVID-19 ushered in habits of hunkering down and social distancing, Trinity events had to transition from in person to virtual. Since then, thousands of members of the Trinity community, regardless of location or time zone, have embraced the opportunities to get together, to learn, and to find a sense of connection by participating through computer screens via Zoom videoconferencing.
Varied presentations and topics have included a series on U.S. presidential politics; a discussion of Albert Camus’s The Plague; a conversation between Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney and Kristine Belson ’86, president of Sony Pictures Animation; a series showcasing alumni musicians; a talk with Andrew Aydin ’06, co-author of MARCH: Book Three, the first graphic novel to win the National Book Award; a look at the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and a talk with Kayak founder and CEO Steve Hafner P’22.
Trustee Emeritus Doug Tansill ’61, P’91, ’96 was among hundreds of virtual attendees of “At the Top of Their Game,” with Robin Sheppard M’76, veteran Bantam coach and athletics administrator, moderating a discussion with five alumni from the professional sports realm on how the pandemic has rocked their world, as well as how their Trinity education helped them achieve their professional goals.
“It just made you swell with pride to hear these accomplished alumni talk about their experiences at Trinity being, frankly, as wonderful as mine were,” says Tansill. Panelists included Jay Monahan ’93, commissioner of the Professional Golf Association, and Sam Kennedy ’95, president and CEO of the Boston Red Sox.
Tansill also attended “Hospitality Disrupted,” which focused on how the hospitality and restaurant industry is grappling with COVID-19 challenges. World-renowned restaurateurs David Chang ’99, founder and chef of Momofuku, and Danny Meyer ’80, P’20, founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, joined moderator John Molner ’85, co-founder and CEO of KCM Media.
“Obviously they’re at the epicenter of industries dramatically and negatively impacted by the virus,” Tansill says of Chang and Meyer. “The discussion was terrific and really fun.” At one point, journalist Katie Couric, who is married to Molner, Zoombombed the conversation. She popped in to say hi and to tease her husband, noting how nervous he had been to preside over the discussion.
Steve Donovan, Trinity’s director of alumni relations, said that as of April 1, 2021, live attendance for virtual events surpassed 5,700 total audience members; 45 percent of the individuals had not attended a Trinity event in person in the previous five years. “We’ve expanded on our traditional attendance, including significant participation from alums overseas,” says Donovan.
The audience is continually growing, too, as recordings of the virtual presentations are viewed by thousands more via Trinity’s website. A search for “Virtual Long Walk” provides access to the presentation archive and other content intended to help Trinity community members stay connected.
“The ease with which people can attend the events from the comfort of their homes or offices is a big part of the positive feedback we’ve had,” says Donovan. “Also, people have been blown away by the talent of the speakers. The remote format makes it a bit easier for some very busy, high-profile folks to share their stories virtually instead of in person.”
After attending “The College Admissions Landscape in a COVID-19 World,” Jessica Lockhart Vincent ’98 felt better informed to help her son with the college search process. “The biggest thing was hearing how much it has changed from what I went through 20-something years ago, including how many schools now are test-optional,” says Vincent, who lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania.
Vincent says one concern she had was how pandemic restrictions have limited sports and extracurricular opportunities. But Adrienne Amador Oddi, dean of admissions and financial aid, and Julia Naclerio ’08, M’20, associate director of college counseling at the King School, shared alternate ways for students to demonstrate goal setting and productive use of their time. “They described one applicant who, when lockdown happened, decided they were going to watch the top 100 movies of all time,” says Vincent. “I would never have thought of that as something that would be appealing in an admissions application. It really helped me adjust my thinking.”
For Barbara Johnson M’89, a self-described “proponent of lifelong learning and the use of technology” who lives in South Dakota, the virtual events have reconnected her with Trinity, where she earned a master’s in English. A humanities scholar, Johnson has attended several virtual events, including a Trinity College Chapel service.
Johnson remembers attending the Festival of Lessons and Carols in the Chapel every winter when she lived in Connecticut, and the virtual Chapel gathering brought back the feeling of being part of the campus community. “Regardless of whether you were studying literature or science, that sense of us all being together came up in my memory during the service. I thought of all those really neat people at Trinity; it was a good community, and we all worked together.”
Donovan says that some virtual events, notably “Alumni Leaders Building Stronger Communities,” have been moving, with attendees commenting—either by live chat during the event or by email afterward—on how poignant the discussion was. “The panel with alumni leaders of nonprofit organizations really tugged at your heartstrings because it followed on the heels of all the social and racial injustice issues that came to the forefront this summer. The panelists all told raw and emotional stories and how those experiences impact the work they do,” says Donovan.
During the discussion, which dealt with the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, panelist Karraine Moody ’01 addressed her personal experience as a parent raising Black children in America. She also spoke of Trinity experiences and mentors who helped lead her to “fulfill my purpose” in her work as the CEO of Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity.
“It was such a healthy conversation, taking place in a nonjudgmental zone,” says Moody. “There are some real down-to-earth but critical conversations being held on Trinity’s platform. It speaks to the gravity of the college,” she adds. “We might be a small liberal arts college, but we come with such power, we come with such influence, in having these conversations.”
While many of the virtual events are spearheaded by Donovan and colleagues in the Advancement Office, others are produced or co-sponsored by academic departments and centers and by alumni organizations. For many events, extensive technical support was provided by Information Technology Services, says Donovan.
“I think there will always be a need for and benefits from in-person events,” says Donovan. “But we’ve recognized just how effective a medium this is, and I expect we’ll continue with virtual event programming long beyond the pandemic.”
Mitchell A. Polin ’96, associate dean for curriculum and associate professor of theater and dance, says an especially timely virtual talk with a robust question-and-answer session was “The Vaccine Pipeline,” in which Kari Sweeney Efferon ’03, associate director at Pfizer, addressed both the challenges and cautious processes that figured into accelerated development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“What we’ve seen from alumni participation is that it’s primarily people who have an interest in learning,” says Polin. “And that’s the greatest compliment Trinity could ever get, to have an alumni group that’s excited to be part of an academic conversation and wants to engage important, sometimes difficult, questions.”
Polin notes that alumni from many different class years and from around the country and the world are participating in the virtual events based on their interests in topics and presenters. Says Polin: “The world becomes very small when we’re able to all be on a Zoom screen together.”
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Visit the Virtual Long Walk Presentation Archive.