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Why Alumni Are Important in Education: It’s Not the Reason You Think
Dr. Dean Nicholas, CHCA Head of School

In most of our experiences, the word “alumni” was only mentioned in the context of hosting, attending, or, most commonly, skipping a class reunion. If you work in private or independent school world or in higher education, the word “alumni” is also regularly paired with the word “giving,” as institutions think through their development strategies. So as a person who attended public schools K-12, except for high school classmates posting a reunion plan on Facebook, I don’t hear from my schools. It is only my college alma mater that reaches out to me. I greatly valued the education I received from my elementary, middle, and high schools, but my connection to them only exists in my memories. But as I consider schools and the process of education as a whole, I think most institutions underestimate the power and importance of their alumni. As a school committed to helping students discover and cultivate their unique gifts and talents to prepare them for a holy vocation in the world, I believe there is value in continuing and cultivating the relationship after graduation.

Alumni selling sweatshirts at Homecoming festival
The Power of Alumni for Teachers

I often talk about how an important attribute to develop as a teacher is a sense of delayed gratification. Teaching can be a grind. Being in a room with a unique blend of individuals which changes for Lower School teachers year after year and for Upper School teachers not only bell after bell but year after year is a challenge. Depending on the age of the student one teaches, the problems span a wide spectrum of behaviors and attitudes. Sometimes we forget that we didn’t start out as the people we are right now but that we are all in a process of becoming. And as life long learners and educational professionals, we are hopefully continuing to become the more beautifully developed individuals we will be in a year or a decade from now. But sometimes our former students reside in our heads as they used to be. When educators have the opportunity to see their students years and even decades later, they are able to see the fruit from the seeds they planted years ago. The struggle of teaching and learning that sometimes frustrates an educator seems worth the extra effort when they see who their students have become. When the hyperactive immature student who was always on the brink of turning your classroom into the island in Lord of the Flies returns as a mature adult making an impact in the world, not only do you feel proud of them and see that there was a pay off to all the effort. It also creates a bit more patience for the current student who might not be quite as compliant as you would like. And if you teach long enough, you may have the benefit of calling alumni who as adults become advisors and even friends. It’s hard to imagine that the freshman sitting in your class might one day be someone you call for legal advice or insight on changing technology or whose novel you might read for entertainment. But that is the power of alumni for teachers.

The Power of Alumni for Students

For our current students, the world of school is often a confusing place. We are not always the best at helping them see how what we are doing connects to the “real world.” I used to feel offended when a student asked at the end of what I considered a brilliant class, “How are we ever going to use this?” I came to realize that the question was actually of ultimate importance and I needed to do a better job of helping students see why learning in my class was meaningful. I am not suggesting that there is a simple 1 to 1 pragmatic link of each and every lesson to something you will directly “use” later in life. But the relevant educator should always understand the links and connections between what we are teaching and the growth of the student into a person who can flourish in the actual world in which they will live. When our students see alumni who have been in the exact same seats where they are now, living out a dynamic vocation that links their unique gifts and talents with their unique calling, they are inspired by what could be for them in their own life.

We have so many alumni doing incredible things and their stories and experiences open the world to our students. Skylar Beavers '19 and Jordynn Jenkins '20 created the charity “Make a Kid Merry” as college students. Margaret Rogerson '07 is a New York Times best selling author and Nathaniel Sizemore '04 is a lawyer, entrepreneur, and now writes political thrillers. Salen Churi '04 taught in the University of Chicago Law School, practiced law, and then co-founded Trust Ventures which helps innovative start ups change the world. Dr. David Snyder '97 is the Executive Director of Sustainable Medical Missions, training and supporting indigenous healthcare and faith leaders in underdeveloped countries to treat Neglected Tropical Diseases. Joni Brandyberry '01 is the co-founder and director of programming for Cincinnati Urban Promise, bringing the love and light of Christ to Cincinnati youth. This is just the tip of the iceberg of our incredible alumni doing incredible things. They have the power to inspire our current students and give them the opportunity to dream of what the future might look like for them as they consider their calling.

The Power of Alumni for Culture and Legacy

One of the most rewarding and powerful experiences I’ve had in education is when our alumni come back to CHCA as teachers, coaches, and staff members. When you are able to see the incredible people that they have become and hear their desire to return so that they can invest in the next generation of students, to help create the type of learning environment and experience that they had, you are both moved and thankful to be part of this learning community. Alumni who seek to return have a vested interest in our mission and vision. They believe in the process and the people here. And they desire to help build the legacy of the school we are becoming. Engaging and learning from a colleague who was once your student is a rewarding moment. And because I’m also a CHCA parent, seeing my own children learn, grow, and be mentored by CHCA alumni is an example of education coming full circle. We currently have seven alumni as classroom teachers and a number of assistant coaches as well. These alumni are building into our culture now and will shape the culture of the future.

Another way our alumni build into our culture and legacy is when they become CHCA parents and their own children now occupy our classrooms and hallways. The conversations I have with them about their new experiences always bring together two things: the many new and innovative parts of our school that are very different from their time here and the parts of our culture that remain the same—the sense of community and the Christ-centeredness we continue to talk about and experience in this special place. And they are always excited to see the faces of teachers still here from their own time at CHCA.

We love our alumni. They are a powerfully important part of our school community. And the lasting relationship between alumni and the school, and alumni and the people that work here is evidence of the learning community and the faith community we have created together. We desire for this place to always feel like home to our alumni. So whether it is for specific big events and special occasions, as members of our faculty and staff, as parents bringing your own children to CHCA, or on a random Tuesday, totally unannounced just to say “hi,” we love to have our alumni engaged. Our school is better for it.

Dean Nicholas is the Head of School at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, but is not new to CHCA. 

"I was a classroom teacher where I taught Christian Studies for 11 years. Then I moved into administration where I served as a principal (13 years) and Assistant Head of School for a year.

I didn’t plan to be in a PreK-12 independent Christian school. My training was to be a Hebrew Bible scholar. I went to Wheaton College (BA, MA) and then Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (MPhil, PhD) with the intention of being a professor. But I’ve found in life that things rarely go as planned. And I believe whole heartedly that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Nothing has affected my thoughts on education like being the father of three boys who all learn very differently. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching all three of them in class and watched each of them navigate the world of school in their own unique ways.

When I’m not doing school work, I love reading, experimenting in the kitchen, gardening, fishing, teaching Sunday School, and traveling the world."

For more of my perspectives on Christian Education, visit:  An Educational JourneyThoughts from a Head of School

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