Ann-Henley Nicholson, MDiv ’14, Princeton Theological Seminary’s director of alumni relations, describes her theology of alumni engagement as “missional and reformed.” Alumni engagement, she says, involves going to where alumni are, enabling and empowering alumni to connect with one another and to deepen their relationship with the Seminary. It also means that Seminary employees recognize that alumni relations is part of their role and part of their ministry.
“A big priority for me is increasing the number of alumni who feel connected to the Seminary in meaningful ways,” she says. In response to alumni requests, she plans to provide the continuity and communication that will create the connection alumni have sought.
In the past year, Nicholson has started a monthly alumni email campaign to improve communication; traveled around the U.S. to meet with alumni; nearly doubled the number of alumni volunteers for the now-postponed reunion; and, at last year’s senior banquet, introduced graduates to what it means to be part of the Seminary’s 11,000-member alumni family.
With the disruption brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Nicholson is shifting her efforts to focus on the digital sphere. She helped to organize a memorable virtual senior banquet for the 2020 graduating class; began establishing Facebook groups for alumni based on their graduating year, beginning with the classes that would have been attending Reunion 2020; supported continuing education efforts to care for and resource alumni through webinars, podcasts, and virtual alumni gatherings; and is connecting with alumni online.
Plans for the future include creating a digital database so alums are able to make connections organically, establishing alumni chapters in areas concentrated with Seminary graduates, and incentivizing alumni activity — especially among new graduates.
Being an alum isn’t always intuitive. It’s something that has to be informed, learned, and activated, and Nicholson says the alumni journey begins well before students graduate. She believes the process begins with recruitment, ensuring prospective students recognize that, should God call them to Princeton Seminary, they will become part of an expansive alumni family around the world. She’s welcomed students the minute they step foot on campus and plans to get to know them, to have a better sense of their Seminary experience, and discover what they might need as alumni so she can better support them as they pursue their calls.
In her first alumni email sent in September 2019 she wrote, “God sends us to serve our alumni wherever you are and alumni engagement is a ministry to which we all have been called.”
Nicholson feels she was called to her work as director of alumni relations at Princeton Seminary, a call she says that came from her ordination vows:
“‘Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry and will you seek to serve the church with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?’ When I realized the answer is and always will be, ‘I will, with God’s help,’ I recognized that as a call.”
“Covenantal theology,” she says, “is all about relationships, whether it’s our relationship with God or our relationship with one another.” And that, she believes, is how the Seminary’s covenant community will unite people as alumni and members of the greater Seminary family.
One way of connecting alumni and building the strong bonds between all of those within the Seminary community is to share their stories.
“It’s humbling to witness the ways in which Princeton Seminary prepared our alumni for ministry and what, by God’s grace, they’re doing now — it’s extraordinary,” Nicholson says. “I am so struck by the stories of our alumni that need to be told that I feel it is intrinsic to my call here to tell the ongoing story of what God is doing through our alumni and connect that with the story of what God continues to do on our campus.”
Leveraging campus communication resources like The Quad and learning resources offered through continuing education opportunities, the stories and information are being shared during her travels and meetings with individuals and groups.
Nicholson’s commitment to alumni is strong and sincere, and the core of her work reaches outside of campus. “We can’t do the ministry of alumni engagement without our alumni, so it becomes about expanding our alumni volunteer network so more people catch the vision and connect our alumni with each other and the Seminary,” whether on campus or a remote location around the world.
“My hope is to create meaningful relationships with our alumni that are sustained throughout their lives and ministries,” she says. “That’s what the Seminary wants – a life-long relationship with every member of its alumni family.”