This fall students in two sections of Mason management professor Mandy O’Neill’s MGMT 413 Organizational Development and Management Consulting class learned how to contact subjects, conduct interviews, transcribe notes, and analyze materials to create graphic representations of their findings, just like they do every semester. What was different this time was their interview subjects: Mason alumni.
When Chris Clark-Talley, Mason’s associate vice president for alumni relations, prepared to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Mason Nation, it was important to her and the Alumni Association board members to connect current students with alumni from the past five decades to create a rich narrative based on their experiences at the university. The initiative started small, but with help from Mason professors, it grew into a significant learning experience for all.
In addition to O’Neill’s class, students in Carl Botan’s COMM 331 Advanced Principles in Public Relations also interviewed alumni, current members of Student Government are talking to their predecessors, and Alumni Association board members and student volunteers are putting fresh batteries in their digital recorders and reaching out to alumni from across the decades.
One of the biggest challenges for her students, O’Neill says, was the uncertainty of the assignment. “Anything that’s not plug-and-play can cause anxiety,” she says. “I tell them, folks, that’s the consulting world. You’re going to have to work with real clients. They’re going to change their minds, and the scope is going to be different at the beginning than it is in the middle. There are no templates for everything they’re going to experience on the job.”
One of O’Neill’s students, management major Braeden Rustici, practically grew up at Mason. His father, Thomas Rustici, is an economics professor here and several family members attended Mason as well. “This has been one of the best management classes and experiences I’ve had at George Mason,” he says, adding that the most important takeaway is that “people are complex with many factors that drive their behavior and values. This is why, when you need to create solutions for organizations, you need to do your due diligence and go beyond the obvious.”
Another student in MGMT 413, management major Golda Hector, first started taking classes at Mason in 1991 and recently returned to finish her degree. Hector says she could easily relate to the 1995 alumnus she interviewed. From the more recent graduates she spoke to, she saw how the “life of a commuter student is pretty much the same. The 2016 and 2017 alumni lived as I did as a commuter [student], living at home with parents and working part time, leaving almost no time to engage in on-campus activities.” As for Hector herself, as a native of Ghana, she found the expanded diversity of Mason’s student body over the decades a welcome sight.
Botan’s public relations class proved the perfect fit to create a full marketing campaign for Clark-Talley, giving her the information she needed while affording Botan’s students the chance to do some real-world PR work.
“I saw Chris, from our opening discussion, would clearly be an outstanding mentor for students,” Botan says. “As students got more involved with her and with understanding what the [Alumni Association] was trying to do, they got pretty carried away. Chris got enthused too, and that’s fine by me. I encouraged that, and kind of stayed out of the way.”
The eight-student team created “A Lifelong Connection: Alumni Association 50th Golden Anniversary Campaign Plan” with the intent to create a multi-pronged effort to reach alumni, secure their participation in the upcoming celebration, raise awareness of the anniversary among the Mason community, and identify 50 noteworthy alumni exemplars.
Communication major Chelseah Mesa was a part of the team, and calls Botan’s course “one of the most challenging classes I’ve taken, but also the most rewarding.” Mesa says the biggest challenge of the campaign was “determining how we could translate the needs of our clients into physical, tangible materials that we could present to them.”
Mesa’s team also created a video based on the materials they gathered and laid out an analysis of what this project would be like going forward.
“The video was so poignant and moving,” Clark-Talley says. “When they were done, they said, ‘One of the most meaningful parts of this project was learning about our university’s history. Because we didn’t know any of this stuff.’” Clark-Talley plans to address this gap through the Alumni Association.
“We should be responsible for teaching students about Mason’s history,” she says, adding that she hopes to have the association play a role in the orientation of new students.
“As a university focused on the future, we sometimes run the risk of not taking really important milestone moments to recognize history,” she says. “The original intention was to create a narrative that links 50 years of alumni experiences. The takeaway from this has been much greater, and will have life way beyond this process.”
To see the students’ 50th anniversary video, visit bit.ly/50videogmu .