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Education Schools reach out to former grads to mentor students, raise funds

Photo of University of Toronto Schools in the Annex in Toronto, Ont., May 4, 2011

Alex Cui is in Grade 12. He loves chemistry – he represented the University of Toronto Schools at the International Chemistry Olympiad – but he's got activism in his blood, too, and helps run the Act Out social justice syndicate. University is around the corner.

A year ago, he had no idea which passion to follow. Until UTS connected him with Sabrina Tang.

Ms. Tang, who studied industrial engineering after graduating from the independent school in 2007, just finished a fellowship at MaRS examining the intersection of health care and innovation. Through UTS's Branching Out alumni mentoring program, the school connected her with Mr. Cui, whom she began mentoring and connecting with engineers from various disciplines.

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"Sometimes we think different areas like engineering or business or political advocacy are separate," Ms. Tang says, "but there are really amazing ways in which they can overlap." Now, as enrolment season begins, Mr. Cui plans to apply to chemical engineering programs, where he hopes to focus his research on innovation and entrepreneurship. Thanks to Ms. Tang, he came into Grade 12 with more confidence in his future: "I feel like a lot of things are mapped out for me now."

At private and independent schools across Canada, alumni are now seen as more valuable than ever. Both their experience and dollars are crucial for the institutions and their students. Some schools are simply pushing harder to beef up their endowments, increasing their fundraising to build financial aid opportunities, while others have more sweeping programs to bring alumni back into the life of the school to pass wisdom on to students. Both are part of a broader effort to keep the institutions on alumni minds throughout their lifetime, enriching the student experience to, in turn, add to the pool of enthusiastic alumni.

Tuition generally covers only basic operating costs at private and independent schools. Most everything else – such as new buildings or student financial aid – usually comes through donations. Those are generally increasing.

Both the number of independent-school students receiving financial aid, and the average amount awarded, has increased each year for the past three years, according to Canadian Accredited Independent Schools, which represents more than 90 schools across the country.

"Thanks to alumni networks, the number of students able to attend CAIS schools regardless of their socioeconomic background is increasing," says Anne-Marie Kee, the association's executive director. She points to last year's $19-million donation by the Shaw family to Shawnigan Lake School on Vancouver Island, much of which will go to scholarships, as evidence of the growing size of, and interest in, alumni donations to independent schools.

Donations for student aid, Ms. Kee says, help create crucial formative experiences that only get better when alumni programs bring mentoring into the picture, building connections that bridge the student and adult worlds. "The ongoing benefit to a strong alumni association is you're part of something for the rest of your life."

Alumni networks are crucial for UTS. Rosemary Evans, its principal, is regularly invited to luncheons held by the class of 1949, who still get together constantly. "They tell me as time goes on, and they look back at their lives, those friendships and connections become even more important," she says.

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These graduates often go on to become ambassadors of and advocates for the school. It was largely thanks to alumni donations, for instance, that the Grade 7-12 school stayed open after Ontario withdrew its funding in 1993. That push for UTS's continued existence only fortified its alumni network, says Mark Opashinov, president of the school's alumni association. Now, he says, "A lot of the alumni funds go to support our bursary programs, to make good on the promise that any kid who qualifies and wants to go [to UTS] can go."

Rothesay Netherwood School in southern New Brunswick has a long list of graduates. A decade ago, its board of directors re-prioritized building its endowment and fundraising capacity. Rob Beatty, the school's director of development, estimates the school has as much as doubled its endowment in the past five years. Much of this has been thanks to the generosity of the 138-year-old school's engaged alumni.

"It's critical you have good participation," Mr. Beatty says. "If you don't have it, it's hard to go back and build it."

The nature of alumni programs varies from coast to coast to coast, but they are almost always a crucial part of independent schools' communities. At Queen Margaret's School in Duncan, B.C., alumni donations don't make up the bulk of its fundraising, but its graduates are a thriving portion of its community. "The history is rich, and it's deep, and it goes back a long way," says Tracy Arden, QMS's director of development and alumni relations.

On top of the independent, decades-strong Old Girl's Overseas Margaretian Association, the school's alumni office regularly holds events across Canada and the world, including in Shanghai and Mexico City. Its graduates are everywhere, and they love reconnecting.

"Unfortunately, I can't fly to every corner of the world," Ms. Arden says.

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Some private-school alumni, meanwhile, don't stray too far. Jonathan Bitidis, who graduated from UTS in 1999, went to law school before deciding to teach. He joined the school's alumni association board a few years ago, while he was studying to become a teacher, and had the opportunity to spend his practicum at the school. He jumped at the chance.

"The reason I became a teacher in the first place was because of the teachers I had that inspired me," Mr. Bitidis says.

He has since returned to the school on a one-year contract, teaching economics, history and law. He's thrilled to give back to the school. UTS, after all, "helped define who I was."

More from the Private School report 

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