The Panther Bridge

Student Alumni Association Builds Ties to GSU, Connects Current Students and Alumni

Story by William Inman
Photography by Carolyn Richardson

“It was very difficult for me to participate in clubs or organizations or to generate that kind of college life,” says Brad Ferrer (above), executive vice president of finance and administration for CNN and Alumni Association Board President.

Brad Ferrer (B.B.A. ’81) was like just about every other student on the GSU campus in the late 1970s and the early 80s —  he held a full-time job and drove downtown every morning for classes.

Ferrer, the executive vice president of finance and administration for CNN and Alumni Association Board President, says that during his days at GSU he was busily entrenched in the real world.

“It was very difficult for me to participate in clubs or organizations or to generate that kind of college life,” he says.

Thirty years later, Brittany Hood, a senior from Ellenwood, Ga., working toward a dual degree in computer information systems and managerial sciences, tells a similar story.

“I came here, went to class, did my work and went home,” she says. “I was a true commuter student.”

In the time since Ferrer’s graduation, GSU has made huge strides in creating a rich and vibrant experience for its ever-growing student body. Through myriad academic, social, athletic and cultural opportunities, and by providing a sense of place by building extensive undergraduate housing, it has worked hard to shed the label of “commuter school.”

But for many of GSU’s busy students, like Hood and Ferrer before them, making a lasting connection to the university can be difficult.

When Alumni Association Assistant Vice President Christina Million (M.B.A. ’00) came to GSU in early 2010, she set out to build a service organization for students that would help them forge a lasting bond with the university, create new traditions and build relationships with alumni.

“We want to help current students build an affinity for GSU — we don’t want to see them wearing any other school’s colors,” she says. “And then we want to make sure they don’t lose that excitement once they graduate.”

Prior to coming to GSU, Million directed the alumni association at the University of Texas at Arlington. Under Million’s watch, the school’s student alumni association became the largest student organization on campus. It was led by Jasmine Stewart, who joined the UTA student alumni association when she was a freshman.

In October 2010, Million brought Stewart to Atlanta to create and lead GSU’s Student Alumni Association. Their goal: Get students familiar with the Alumni Association from the moment they step onto campus.

“What caught me was Jasmine Stewart saying, ‘Become a Founder,'” says Brittany Hood, senior and SAA Vice President for Student Affairs.

A Tradition Begins

Stewart started at Incept, GSU’s undergraduate student orientation program. Incept is required for new freshmen and strongly encouraged for new transfer students.

“That’s where you have a captive audience,” she laughs.

Stewart’s message of enriching the students’ college experience and getting in on the ground floor of this new organization resonated with the incoming freshman, as well as older, high-achieving students like Hood who were recruited by Stewart to become the first members of the SAA.

“What caught me,” Hood remembers, “was Jasmine saying, ‘become a founder.’ You could really tell how much she wanted it to grow and how involved she was.”

Stewart also told the students of the benefits involved in membership. For example, SAA members would get 10 percent off textbooks at the GSU Bookstore.

Hood, along with more than 1,000 others, signed up in the first three months. Within a year, GSU’s Student Alumni Association would swell to 1,400 members — now the largest student organization on campus. When the group held its first elections in April 2011, Hood would be unanimously elected as the organization’s vice president of student affairs.

But on the very night of the new member dinner back in February 2011, Hood was leveled by news that her father, who had suffered a stroke days earlier, had been declared brain dead.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t sure how involved I was going to be able to be,” she remembers. “But then it became my outlet. It became the way I fought off being depressed. It was how I could have some fun and be around people who were there for me. And that began my dedication for the organization.”

Stewart says that, since then, Hood has emerged as a leader.

Besides serving on the SAA executive board, Hood has also chaired the group’s outreach and fundraising committee. She helped organize the SAA “cook and serve nights,” in which the students prepare and serve meals at SafeHouse Outreach in Atlanta. She also was selected as a Jupiter Fellow by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, or CASE, a professional association serving educational institutions and their advancement professionals. In that role, Hood worked directly with the Alumni Association on various projects, programs and events.

“The things I’ve been able do in this organization are things I never thought I’d do,” she says.

Georgia State’s Alumni Association and Stewart also were recognized by CASE. The association won CASE’s Grand Award in Constituency Organizations Programs for the Student Alumni Association, and Stewart won the Outstanding Advisor award from CASE’s Affiliated Student Advancement Programs.

CASE not only noted the SAA’s successes in outreach, but also its creation of scholarship opportunities for  its members — the outstanding student leader scholarship and a general scholarship, both of which require its winners to have contributed to GSU and the community.

“The scholarships are ways for getting the students to pay it forward,” Stewart says.

The success of the SAA hasn’t gone unnoticed by the university, either. This past April, the SAA’s Vice President of Membership Flavia Canciani, a junior marketing major, was awarded a Sparks Award — given by the university to exceptional faculty, staff and students — for her leadership within the organization.

Stewart, who nominated Canciani, says that she was one of the very first students to sign up, orchestrated meetings with local businesses to establish exclusive benefits with vendors and leads two SAA committees.

“She can always be counted on to help with a project, fill in for a member who is overwhelmed or simply share her humor and enthusiasm,” Stewart says.

“Being able to be a part of a team like this means a lot,” Canciani says. “Also, being able to learn about and from our alumni who are so willing to work with us and help us is very important.”

Stewart adds that the experience working with an organization such as the SAA will be beneficial to the students’ professional development.

“For me, my student alumni association was the primary way that I learned to be a leader,” she says. “In their everyday classes, most students don’t learn about putting on big events, delegation and managing resources. An organization like this is where you can get that kind of experience.”

Moreover, the SAA unites its members with successful alumni, like Ferrer, in a host of settings, such as Dinner with 12 Panthers.

“Being able to be a part of a team like this means a lot,” says Flavia Canciani, junior and SAA Vice President of Membership.

Breaking Bread

Ferrer and his wife, Patricia (B.A. ’71, M.Ed. ’75), have twice hosted a Dinner with 12 Panthers, a sit-down meal hosted by local alums for 12 SAA members. The first was held at 4th and Swift and the second at Floataway Café.

“It’s not every day that a student gets to eat in places like these,” Ferrer said. “Nor is it for me.”

For their dinners, the Ferrers also invited associate professors of finance Craig Ruff and Vikas Agarwal, and the four led the students in discussions about their career paths and choices.

“It was important that they had the chance to talk to us in a social setting,” Ferrer says. “The evenings were both full of conversation.”

Ryan Taylor, an accounting and marketing major who attended the Ferrers’ dinner at Floataway Café, said that besides the upscale dining experience (“It was great!”), the dinner provided him an opportunity to talk shop with a pro.

“I had a chance to talk to [Ferrer] and ask questions about the CPA exam, which I plan on taking as soon as I graduate,” Taylor says.

On the night of the Ferrers’ first dinner at 4th and Swift, Brittany Hood sat two seats away from Ferrer.

“Putting us around professionals like Mr. Ferrer is so beneficial. We get a firsthand look at leaders in their respective industries,” Hood says. “GSU has changed so much since they were here, but it’s great to see that what they’ve learned here has helped in their careers.”

For Ferrer, the commuter who reconnected with his alma mater just six years ago when he was asked to join the Alumni Association Board of Directors, the SAA offers the chance for the university to engage GSU students the moment they walk on to campus and maintain that bond after they graduate. Moreover, he says, it’s setting the groundwork for new generations to share their experiences and insight with future Panthers.

“I expect that one or more of my successors as Alumni Board President was having dinner with me on those nights.”

This summer, the SAA hopes to publish a book that will encourage its readers to become GSU’s tradition keepers. The new book will list a handful of GSU’s offerings, such as catching a flick at Cinefest or taking a class at the Rec Center, and provide a space where students can add their personal photos after completing a tradition. Here are a few more:

  • Attend Panther Prowl
  • Go to a Tailgate at a football game
  • Take a picture with the Pounce statue
  • Check out something from the Digital Aquarium
  • Go to a basketball game
  • Participate in Relay for Life
  • Go to a Greek Step Show
  • See a performance at the Rialto

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