Last week I had the pleasure of talking with Jenna Kriebel and AnneMarie Hunter from the WSU Foundation about the impact of alumni donations and philanthropy for the HYPER laboratory (and my career). Throughout my collegiate experience, first as a student athlete and now faculty, I’ve benefited from the generous donations of Land-Grant alumni. Yes, the Land-Grant institutions are public and state supported, but that public support is often literally the general minimum, which sometimes just isn’t enough. Although I’ve written about the many moments that alumni support was perfectly timed to make a difference in keeping us afloat, the conversation with Jenna and AnneMarie helped me to connect the dots on potentially the biggest and more important factor of alumni support: my accountability for the future of WSU. As a young assistant professor, this expectation to steward and deliver the future alumni of this institution profoundly changed my connection to this place; even though I grew up nearby.

Many clutch moments

Jenna and AnneMarie asked me to generally review the times that alumni support was important for the HYPER laboratory. It took awhile:

  1. In 2012 alumni support gave us our first project. $20k from the VCEA executive leadership board enabled us to build Genii — the first liquid hydrogen fueled drone, which has culminated in nearly $7.5M in state and federal support now. This technology to produce liquid hydrogen from electricity and water in the field, then store it aboard a drone, will soon be evaluated by the US Army.
  2. In 2013 a company committed to match funds that would enable a state level grant, well, due to hard times the company would not be able to honor the commitment and the entire $150k project was in jeopardy. Alumni stepped in to save the day.
  3. In 2014 an alumnus arranged the donation of $500k worth of hydrogen embrittlement test equipment from a decommissioned research laboratory.
  4. Later in 2014 an alumnus gave a $20k donation to renovate a >5,000 sq ft space that would become the manufacturing and design core of HYPER in TFRB. Otherwise we’d still be working over bare plywood floors with a ‘secret goldfish hatch’ plywood manhole that dropped 20 ft to the concrete floor below.
  5. In 2016 I needed support for several students to complete summer internships on stipend. A general request for $6k to Twitter was answered by an alumnus.
  6. In 2018 I was considering going to Twitter again due to bridge a gap in support, but before I could an alumnus randomly announced a donation that prevented people from being furloughed.
And all of this doesn’t begin to get into the times I’ve been fortunate to meet with our senior alumni to talk, have lunch together, and give fun liquid nitrogen demonstrations.

How the alumni changed me

It’s easy to view the value of these donations simply monetarily. I had a friend and mentor in Don Shearer, who corrected me early on. Don was the Director of Alumni support for the School of Mechanical and Materials when I first got started. Don would take me out to meet the alumni. There were many late nights driving through the mountains of California and early mornings catching ferries across Puget Sound. Don new that having the young faculty meet the alumni was key, and just flat out fun sometimes. Don, coming from a similar low economic upbringing as I, knows how much of a difference that alumni support can be.

Here was the biggest take away. Meeting with the alumni, and seeing how my career was explicitly enabled by their support… there were no federal programs for me to be successful with when I got started, their support enabled me to emerge as a leader for when those federal programs did eventually come around. However, many young faculty are told to only go after the pretty federal grants — which were not likely for me. If successful at the federal grants, young faculty get tenured, and then learn to believe this reliance on the feds is normal. Federal support fuels the mindset, “Why work with undergrads in the lab when you can import another postdoc?” In the extreme this mindset only furthers the ‘academic bubbles’ that separate us from our constituents and students.

After the meeting with Jenna and AnneMarie I had a hunch. I emailed all of the younger faculty in my department and asked them when they got to meet with alumni and how it went. Out of the 6 I emailed, the only engagement with alumni (some after 6 years) was through the MME advisory board. None had the experience of meeting with alumni that I had gotten from Don (he was promoted out of MME around 2014). Few have had to practice communicating what they do in a simple way for semi-technical audiences. While all of my younger faculty are very talented and just fun/nice people, I can’t help but wonder what connection they have to this place, this school, and the alumni.

And I wonder what their futures will hold.

The alumni know first hand what this place and their experience meant to them and their futures. They, in many ways, shape our culture and are our primary constituents. May’be someday Land-Grant institutions will welcome new faculty onto campus by sitting them down to meet the alumni.