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Cultivating Alumni Relationships: LSMSA’s Connections Weekend

The event has served as a great opportunity for current students to learn from former students since 2001.
High school students often feel nervous upon approaching their graduation date. “What will I be?” or “What do I do next?” are two of many questions they face before, and often after, receiving their diploma.

In 1991, the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts (LSMSA) in Natchitoches, Louisiana, began showing current students where their studies and talents could take them by highlighting the stories and experiences of former students. This hit home with students because the advice was coming from group of alumni who had not only established themselves professionally but had once been in the students’ shoes.
            
Ranked within the top 1 percent of public high schools in the nation, LSMSA’s academic reputation has been noteworthy since the School’s inception in 1983. According to former LSMSA Deputy Director Dr. Bill Ebarb, in his book The Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts: The First 30 Years, the School’s first graduating class of 1985 saw a surplus of student triumphs. In 1991, some of these successes were catalogued in an article titled “Where Are They Now?” by Rod Dreher, who was a staff writer for the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate and also 1985 graduate. According to Dreher, the group included astrophysicists, aerospace engineers, editors of major book companies and successful businessmen.

The story, catalyzing the start of the 1991-92 academic-year, may have had some influence on what the School would come to recognize as the “Alumni Panel,” which invited former students back to LSMSA to share personal experiences and advice to current students. The annual event would eventually become what the School knows today as “Connections Weekend.”

“Connections Weekend” was coined by former Director of Academic Services Martha Kay Smiley in 2001, when she realized that there was disconnect between current students and their awareness of graduates who later went on to become successful professionals.

“I came back and I noticed that the kids didn’t know any of the students before them that paved the way,” Smiley said. “I thought it was important for them, as well as the School as a whole, to remember where we came from.”

With the support of other faculty and staff members, Smiley began plans for Connections Weekend, which was held during the fall semester of the 2001-2002 academic-year. The event started as an opportunity to harness the success of LSMSA alumni and use them as mentors for attending students.

The weekend was broken down into a two-day event. On Friday evening, the School hosted a Q&A session with a group of ten panelists. On Saturday, each of the panelists led individual sessions—three at roughly 50-minutes each—on the topic of their choice. Prior to the weekend, students could pre-register for the sessions that they found most interesting; the topics ranged from business management to advice on colleges and personal wellness. LSMSA faculty members facilitated each session.

The first panel included a Wall Street worker, an actor from New York City, a researcher on bioterrorism, a voice professor, and a musical composer. Since that time, panelists have included business CEOs, lawyers, teachers, administrators, military personnel, engineers, professional artists, and even stay-at-home parents, showing a spectrum of success and careers.

According to Smiley, students were initially skeptical about the event, as they were giving up a portion of their weekend to attend. However, they began to grow more invested upon realizing that they could be offered insight on how to handle not only their studies but also their choices after leaving LSMSA, all from the perspective of former students who had gone through very similar experiences.
            
“For these students, there are a lot of people telling you where to go to college, what to study, and why it's important,” said Emily Hindrichs, a 1997 graduate who now works as a professional opera soloist. “Talking about the future and career aspirations with alumni who have been where those students are now means that they have a shared experience, without the vested interest of parentage or patronage.” Hindrichs participated in Connections Weekend in 2018 and spoke on the topic of developing a successful career as an artist.

Matthew Claiborne, a 2007 graduate and award-winning journalist and producer for ABC News in New York, saw the value of the required weekend when he attended LSMSA and was subsequently chosen to participate as one of the panelists in 2017.

“I remember Connections Weekend very vividly,” Claiborne said. “It was amazing to see the success of the alumni and the paths they took to get to where they were.” As a student, Claiborne had a general curiosity for journalism and decided to write for the School newspaper, The Renaissance. From there, he realized that his love of meeting people, in addition to his communication and writing skills, could lead him toward a rewarding career in journalism.

As a speaker for Connections Weekend, Claiborne felt it provided an opportunity to give back to the School that provided him a stepping stone toward his profession.

“Students in high School often have a limited scope of ‘potential actualized,’ Claiborne said. “I participated in Connections Weekend because it was a way for me to give back to my alma mater, and I loved the idea of being able to show students, ‘Hey, I can do this, too. I can contribute something to the world.’ It helps them see past college applications and look at the bigger scope.”

Connections Weekend allows students to see that there is not a one-way path to success, and many avenues can be taken to reach their goals. Panel discussions have covered the topics of personal set-backs, failures, adjustments in career goals, and learning to adapt to changes. Alice Shikina, who participated in Connections Weekend in 2015, was—at the time—an admissions officer at AltSchool, an alternative education non-profit school. She now works as a freelance legal mediator.

“I loved talking to the ambitious high School students to give them a perspective on life that they may not have had at such a young age,” said Shikina, a 1989 graduate. “I think that now that I am in my third career, it gave me a great perspective to share with them. I wanted to let them know that the careers they may choose now may not be the ones that they will have forever, and so they should not overly stress about their final decisions.”

Students at LSMSA echo the same sentiments of other high school students, having fears about where they will go to college and worrying about setting realistic objectives for themselves. Connections Weekend helps them channel their post-graduation anxieties into actualized goals.

“I really appreciate listening to the alumni at Connections Weekend, because it’s relatable and encouraging,” said LSMSA senior Zachary Schleter. “As somebody who is really focused on academics, I get overwhelmed thinking about what it’s going to be like finding a job after I finish with my formal education. Meeting alumni at Connections Weekend who live normal lives with fairly normal jobs reminds me that I can still be successful beyond the world of academia.”

In addition, Connections Weekend and the relationships that LSMSA has built with its previous students has had a lasting impact on them, both personally and professionally.

“It’s interesting how I can reach out to a fellow student from my time and we seem to connect and pick up as if we interact daily or weekly, even if we haven’t spoken or connected in years,” Michael Thornton, a member of the 1987 graduating class, said. “Those relationships formed the foundation for my relational experiences moving into and through my college years. My current job is a direct result of relationships developed through LSMSA.” Thornton is a multi-year participant of Connections Weekend and currently serves as a clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M University.

Events such as Connections Weekend show that the School not only has a sense of responsibility over current students and their scholastic success, but it maintain a genuine interest in the achievements of graduates. The invested interest in former students opens up additional opportunities for alumni contributions. While some alumni, knowing and attesting to the School’s success, choose to financially support the LSMSA Foundation, others come back as instructors or even guest lecturers at School events.

“When I decided to do Connections Weekend, I wanted to be able to give back,” said Breton Boudreaux, a 2002 graduate. “What I didn’t realize was that Connections Weekend would make the biggest difference to me. It was so inspiring to see young, enthusiastic students in Louisiana.” Breton currently serves as a media translator for the U.S. Government, and said her interest in languages started in her French classes at LSMSA. 

Cultivating alumni relationships enriches the school climate and affords students opportunities and experiences that can further their academic and professional careers. Students can participate in programs, research opportunities and internships that would have not otherwise had been available to them without alumni support.

The most important benefit, however, is the School’s contribution to future leaders. Thanks to Connections Weekend, students are able to see that the possibilities for educational and professional development are endless.

“I would encourage each and every LSMSA alum to consider participating in Connections Weekend,” said Jay Johnson, a 1994 graduate who served as a Connections Weekend panelist in 2015. Johnson is currently the executive vice president and chief financial officer at DiamondRock Hospitality Company, a publicly-traded lodging real estate investment trust. “I found it extremely rewarding and an excellent way to give back to the School that has given so much to its graduates. My only regret is that I have only participated once.”

For mnore information on Connections Weekend, visit www.LSMSA.edu/page/alumni.
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