SAA Today, Devoted Alumni Tomorrow: The Georgia State Student Alumni Association
SAA stands for Student Alumni Association, and if “student alumni” sounds like an oxymoron, the thousands of students walking around in the shirt apparently don’t think so. Through events, giveaways, and opportunities for career development and volunteerism, they’re building closer bonds with their alma mater — bonds that will grow as they graduate and venture out into the real world. The overall GSU Alumni Association, which provides the funds for SAA, hopes that what begins as a wardrobe choice will develop into membership in the GSUAA and a lifelong connection from which both the students and their university can benefit.
And, as evidenced by the ubiquity of the GSU SAA shirts, plenty of students think that’s an attractive offer. Less than four years after it was founded, the Student Alumni Association has grown to more than 2,500 members — making it the largest student organization on campus.
Making School Spirit Pay Off Down the Road
When Lorenzo Rogers was attending high school at Brookstone in Columbus, Ga., one of his teachers was a Georgia State graduate. “She would tell me about how it was way smaller back in the day,” he remembers. “What she did was wake up in the mornings, drive to class, and go home. There were no residence halls, no dining halls, not a lot of reasons to stay on campus after classes were over.”
Today, Rogers is a senior majoring in psychology, as well as an SAA member — and Georgia State has residence halls, dining halls, and a thriving core of student life on campus. Rogers, who served as SAA’s director of student affairs in 2013-14, says the group fueled that sense of community and campus pride through regular events, free lunches and other giveaways, and the December release of Georgia State’s first-ever Official Panther Ring. There are also annual scholarships available exclusively to SAA members.
But the SAA aims to instill that school spirit for more than just four or five years, says Sigi Cayel, a senior in political science and the group’s vice president of administration. “We help bridge the gap between the students and the alumni through things such as leadership development,” she says, “so when they get out into the working world, they have connections, they can intern, they can get jobs and build their professional skills.”
One example of that effort is the Dinner with 12 Panthers program, in which a Georgia State alum in a given industry hosts a dinner for 12 students majoring in a similar field. “So instead of going out into the real world and being blind to what they need to do to get where they want to go, boom, we have this person who’s done it,” says Brittany Hood, SAA’s student relations coordinator. “And when students get comfortable talking to people in that kind of environment, we find that it continues once they’re out in the real world.”
SAA member Jay Lovern attended one of the dinners a couple years ago at the home of a Georgia State marketing alum. “They take you in, cook you dinner and treat you really nice, and you basically have an open forum to ask, ‘Hey, what did you do, what worked well for you, can you give me some direction?’” he says. “That is the kind of thing I wish I’d been more involved in as a freshman.”
Lovern has since earned his own marketing degree and is pursuing a second in computer information systems while he does a co-op at Delta Air Lines. As he transitions from college into the career world, he’s been particularly grateful for the leadership skills SAA has helped him develop — skills he’s been able to use both on the job and back on campus.
“When I sign people up [for SAA], I may not know them at all, but I can tell them, ‘As a freshman I just wish someone could’ve grabbed me by the shoulder and said, look, this helps you get a grasp on college in general,’” Lovern says. “It’s great being able to take a freshman, who may not realize that he has so much potential, and help him to realize he can really do anything he wants and there are people who can help.”
Return on Investment
Ultimately, of course, Georgia State hopes students like Lovern will stay connected once they’re settled into their career paths and continue to feel a sense of pride and ownership in their alma mater.
“That’s something that Christina Million [associate vice president for alumni affairs]felt very passionate about, that we wanted to start building a bridge between the students and the alumni from the minute they got here,” says Jasmine Stewart, who served as SAA’s advisor when it was formed in February 2011. “We’ve really connected the two entities so that when students graduate, they’re already comfortable with the alumni association. It’s not this thing they’ve never thought about in their four years and then all of a sudden it’s, ‘Oh, come join.”
Hood, who succeeded Stewart as advisor in 2013, says the SAA tries to make clear to students that staying connected to Georgia State “is not always a financial thing. We know how it is for new graduates — ‘I’m fresh out of college, I’ve just started my career, I don’t want people calling me up asking for money.’ But we have a speaker series, banquets, and volunteer opportunities that expose students to involvement outside those financial aspects that can get stuck in their heads. We want to make sure they know it’s about more than just giving money; it can include your time as well.”
In her own way, Hood is an SAA success story. She helped launch the group as a student, and then — right as she was preparing to start her career in information technology — she got the opportunity to stick around at her alma mater and serve as the group’s advisor. She jumped at the chance and hasn’t looked back.
“IT was just one of those things that was easy for me to do, but I didn’t really enjoy it — it didn’t give me joy and motivation like my work did here,” Hood explains. “When I got to graduation, Jasmine ended up being promoted [to assistant director of constituent relations in the GSUAA]and this position opened up, so it was like, ‘Wow, what a coincidence!’ It had been on my mind — who’s going to run this group? What’s going to happen to it? So I thought it was just meant to be.”
By her own admission, Hood first came to Georgia State with a “commuter-school” mentality — “I came to classes, and as soon as classes were done, I was going to work or going home,” she says. So she’s particularly proud of the way school spirit has risen in the years since, and of SAA’s role in that.
And as founding members of SAA, both Hood and Stewart are proud of the incredible things the group has accomplished in a relatively short amount of time. Going from 0 to 2,500 students in three years, of course, is a huge feat. So is the 3,000 toiletry items (and countless volunteer hours) SAA members have contributed to SafeHouse Outreach, a center providing meals, counseling, mentoring and other services for at-risk kids and families in Atlanta’s urban core.
But SAA’s biggest undertaking might have been hosting the District III conference for ASAP (Affiliated Student Advancement Program), the student arm of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, in February 2013. As the largest of CASE’s eight districts, District III’s conference was only slightly smaller than the national gathering — 540 students and advisors in attendance — and Georgia State’s SAA had existed for less than two full years. But the student members said they wanted to host the conference, and they got it done.
“I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I was ready to host that conference, because we were so new!” Stewart says with a laugh. “But the students pulled me aside and said, ‘Don’t hold us back, we really think we can do this and we think we can do a great job.’ And I thought, if the students are so passionate about it, who am I to stand in their way?”
The “all-hands-on-deck” effort proved to be successful — so successful, in fact, that CASE ASAP honored the Georgia State SAA with its Outstanding Organization Award at its national convention last August. “That’s the highest award you can get for an organization like this,” Cayel says. “We’ve gotten the association to the point where all the other organizations were asking how we grew so fast.”
“It gives a lot of validation to the program,” Stewart agrees. “We’ve done a lot of things in a very short amount of time. There are a lot of schools in our area with organizations that are more established, but this award says we can compete with UNC-Chapel Hill, we can compete with the University of Florida, the University of Alabama — we stand eye-to-eye with those groups.”
Pictured above (left-right): Jasmine Stewart, Lorenzo Rogers, Jay Lovern, Sigi Cayel, and Brittany Hood.