The (re)connection: how alumni are staying close to their college home, no matter how far they go


By Meghan McDonald / Feb 28, 2020 9:34:04 AM

Ray Hilburn (’78), associate director of the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association, began mentoring College of Agriculture students eight years ago.

“I decided to participate to give back to the College of Agriculture for them supporting me while I was in college and throughout my career,” he said.

Amy Wright, associate dean for instruction in the College of Agriculture, echoed his words from a different perspective.

“We support students while they’re in the college. When they graduate, that’s not the end of it,” she said. “We still want to be able to help, to connect them as alumni with the right people, jobs and resources — and also ways to give back by helping current students.”

This winter, in the midst of a season many people associate with giving, alumni can both enjoy the many ways the College of Agriculture continues to provide resources, and share the gift of their own experience with today’s students. Here are six specific ways alumni can connect, whether they’ve been out of school for two years or 20, whether they have hours to contribute or a few free minutes.


1. Connect With Clubs and Department Heads

A simple call or email to a department head can open many doors. “Our department heads are always eager to know alumni and even have them speak to classes, come to departmental events or help design field trips,” Wright said. “Alumni can also say, ‘I need to hire for this position,’ and the department can connect them with students or recent graduates.”

Department heads can reconnect alumni with clubs they participated in as students.

“We love to have alumni come and speak to our student clubs about their experiences,” Wright said.

Clay Tucker, a junior agriculture business and economics major, currently serves as president of the Auburn Young Farmers organization. “We try to have a speaker at every meeting. Often they are alumni,” he said.

The roster of alumni speakers this fall included state veterinarian Tony Frazier.

“Alumni give helpful advice on what they wish they’d done more of and what they did that benefited them most,” Tucker said. “They also speak on how we need to do more to ‘agvocate’ for our industry.”


2. Become a Mentor

Annette Bitto (’99, MS ’01) is a territory manager for John Deere Ag and Turf — and a mentor. She joined the Ag Alumni Mentoring Program after returning to the South from a decade in Iowa.

“The program has been a fantastic opportunity and given me more in return than I ever expected,” she said.

She had hoped to help an undergrad find an internship or even a job. That happened. And so did something more.

“I have been able to develop relationships with my mentees and make new connections with my fellow mentors from all facets of Alabama agriculture. I have benefited as much through this program as the mentees.”

Megan Ross, coordinator for student development and programs, pairs up the students and alumni mentors accepted into the nine-month program based on professional interest. These pairs talk at least once a month, whether in person, by phone or online. Today’s plethora of video technologies makes it easier than ever for alumni who do not live in Auburn to participate.

The program also hosts several events during both the fall and spring semesters, including “speed networking.” Between those events, students are given assignments like developing a mentor/mentee action plan, shadowing their mentor and submitting their resume for critique.

“Mentoring is really a great way for students to see the industry and get career advice from industry professionals,” Ross said.

Elizabeth Mooneyham, Bitto’s current mentee, will graduate in fall of 2021.

“Having a mentor in an agricultural field has been greatly beneficial for me to learn about career choices,” she said. “This has heavily impacted my professional development. I would highly encourage other alumni to participate.”


3. Join Women in Ag

The 2013-14 academic year was special. For the first time since 1872, women made up the majority of students in the College of Agriculture.

“The Women in Agriculture organization is a way for us to provide networking for our female students and connect with women professionals,” Wright said. “The agricultural industry is still largely male dominated. Since our undergrad student population is majority female, we wanted to develop this opportunity.”

The organization supports leadership, builds lasting professional relationships and advances professional development and scholarship to “equip the current and next generation of women leaders to be successful in their careers.”

The group — composed of students as well as professionals, faculty and staff — hosts events designed to inspire and educate attendees no matter where they are in their careers. Women can also connect with the organization through various levels of financial support. The funds add up to scholarships awarded to women currently enrolled in the College of Agriculture.

“I wanted to get to know other women who had chosen degrees and careers in agriculture, both to network and to encourage students to consider an agriculture degree,” said Nikki Barnes McElroy. A member of the Auburn Veterinary Hospital team since 2008, she graduated from the College of Agriculture in 1996 with a degree in animal sciences.

“My degree led to a great career,” she said. “As grateful alumnae, we can support women students and mentor them.”


4. Expand Professional Networks Through Events

The College of Agriculture regularly hosts alumni events on campus and around the state of Alabama. Attendees hear updates on the college, meet current college leadership and get to know other alumni in related fields or in the same geographic area. Some events have an educational component in addition to networking opportunities. A regional young alumni event this fall, for instance, featured a keynote speaker from the organic food industry and a tour of the Auburn Bees Lab.

Networking isn’t just for young alumni. “Networks and job opportunities are still valuable resources for someone 20 years out who’s considering relocating or changing positions,” Wright said. “Or, by that time, someone may be in a position of leadership, and if they engage with the college, they may find people they want to hire.”


5. Find Future Employees

Alumni are always welcome to recruit for their organizations at the College of Agriculture’s twice yearly career fairs. In fall and spring, they (or their organization’s HR representative) can attend to meet and interview students as well as network with other participating professionals at an employer luncheon.

Students from every major across the College of Agriculture attend the career fairs, so alumni in any sector of agriculture have the opportunity to find candidates for employment or internships.

Before attending, alumni can connect with department heads to let them know about open positions. Department heads can then encourage students they think may be a good fit to seek out those alumni at the fairs.


6. T(ag) a Future Tiger

“Students want to know they are making the right choice when selecting a school. They love hearing about alumni and the exciting things they do in their careers,” administrator of student recruitment Brandon Justice said.

The Office of Student Services is trying to make it as easy as possible for alumni to help recruit students. This academic year, they launched the T(ag) a Future Tiger student referral program. Alumni and industry partners can send Justice ( the name, address, current school name and T-shirt size of a high school or community college student ready to start looking at four-year institutions. Student services will send them a recruitment package and invite them to come visit.

Alumni who wish to talk about Auburn with prospective students can get helpful hints from the program flyer, which lists key qualities parents and students are looking for in schools.

“This program is a way to give back that doesn’t have to take time or money,” Wright said. “If alumni had a good experience here, we hope they’ll share that with others.”


At Home on Ag Hill, No Matter How Long It’s Been

“Most donors tell me they wouldn’t be where they are today without Auburn and the College of Agriculture. They feel led to give back to help students,” development officer Jordan Moseley said. Since state funding for Auburn is not growing, he said, “It is becoming even more important for alumni to support the college financially and philanthropically.”

Annual and endowed support can be used to fund programs like the ones listed here, as well as support scholarships, faculty and facilities that help students have the best possible experience.

Staying engaged with the college is a significant way to give back — and also get back.

“Alumni can reach out to us at any time,” Wright said, “whether they need a job, connections or have good news to share. They always have a home in the college.”


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<p><a href="" target="_self">Josh Woods</a></p>

Josh Woods

Josh Woods has served as director of communications and marketing for Auburn University’s College of Agriculture since 2013. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English and aspires to one day have a clean office.

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