Being Bruin: The Alumni Association's 75th Anniversary


By Sandy Siegel '72

Published Jan 1, 2009 8:05 AM

In 1925, five student leaders launched the Southern Branch of the California Alumni Association. Today, that small group has become a 91,000-member organization that, like alumni groups across the country, is adapting consumer-centric techniques, digital technology and other 21st-Century approaches to meet the changing needs of its members.

John Lampl '64, M.S. '65, a member of the UCLA Club of New York, concedes that his UCLA Alumni Association group skews young. So he and his fellow "old guys" — those who graduated more than 25 years ago — meet periodically as the "Silver and Gold" subgroup.

Renee Siemak '07, on the other hand, belongs to a chapter with an older crowd, so as head of the South Bay Bruins' young alumni committee, she creates fun, inexpensive activities to attract more recent graduates.

Though separated by 3,000 miles, 40-plus years in age and different experiences in the Alumni Association, Lampl and Siemak have one thing in common: why they joined.

The Class of '46 at its reunion in '81.

"To stay in contact with the university," Siemak says.

Lampl echoes that sentiment: "I still want to maintain close ties to UCLA."

Five student leaders in 1925 had similar thoughts when they proposed establishing an organization to connect graduates to one another and to the university. The group — dubbed the Southern Branch of the California Alumni Association — wasted no time in setting the stage for future generations, holding social gatherings, kicking off the tradition of Homecoming, setting up a Bureau of Occupations to help students find part-time work and lobbying for graduate studies at UCLA.

A watershed moment came in March 1934, when the Southern Branch severed ties with the Berkeley organization and became the autonomous UCLA Alumni Association. Membership: 1,000.

Seventy-five years and 91,000 members later, the Association is evolving, working hard to keep up with the ever-changing needs of alumni of various ages.

"There are different stages — their life stage, we call it," says Ralph Amos, chief executive officer of the UCLA Alumni Association and assistant vice chancellor of alumni relations, which serves all 380,000 living graduates. "What does it mean to be a Bruin right out of school? What does it mean to be a Bruin as you are developing and building your career? And what does it mean once you're settled, without kids?"

Basically, say alumni association executives across the country, it means that a one-size-fits-all approach to alumni relations doesn't work.

Visit the photo gallery for a peek at select alumni photos through the years.

"Alumni aren't just identifying with the campus anymore because you're supposed to be loyal," says Andrew Shaindlin, executive director of the Caltech Alumni Association, whose blog, Alumni Futures, explores trends in alumni relations. "People are affiliating in ways that actually are relevant to themselves. ... We, as a result, have to tailor our programming to their interests."

For recent Bruin graduates like Siemak, that mission requires programs that are beneficial to young professionals, and are reasonably priced, convenient to get to and appealing to a group of friends ("We kind of travel in packs," she says). Staying connected to UCLA is great, but networking events, graduate-school workshops and alumni mentors would boost the value of her Association membership.

Amos understands that kind of thinking. It's why alumni associations across the country are moving away from the philosophy of "What can you do for the university?" to "What can the university do for you?"

"We will become that organization that is customer-centric, alumni-centric, over time," Amos says. "The board of directors, the staff, the administration are warming up to and embracing that reality, meeting alumni where and how they live. We have to do that in order to be relevant."

And what is more relevant today than technology? "That need to deliver all those programs and services can be solved, to a great extent, by an association using the electronic tools at its disposal," Shaindlin says.

That's the thinking behind the soon-to-be-launched Bruin online network — a Facebook-type site where Association members will log on to personalized home pages providing access to a world of personal, professional and educational options. Everything from connecting socially and/or career-wise to finding lifestyle-specific offerings to joining common-interest networks will be just a few clicks away.

"The organization will become an organization that alumni cannot imagine life without," Amos says.

The founders of the UCLA Alumni Association hardly could have imagined where their idea would lead. But they set the tone for an association that has done much to make the university proud — the Alumni Scholarships program, the campaigns for the engineering and medical schools, and the two-ton bronze bear that stands tall on Bruin Plaza are all part of its legacy.

Yet the Association's greatest gifts might just be the intangibles that cross generational lines — what Amos calls "community-building, reciprocity, love and care."

"Bruins have sort of this heart about them that's there. I think it manifests [itself] in this organization and in advancing alumni relations," he says. "I will make certain we never lose that."

Photos courtesy of UCLA Photography, UCLA University Archives and the UCLA History Project. View more photos in the gallery.