Alumni Return to Bowdoin for Multicultural Planning Retreats

By Rebecca Goldfine
Leaders from Bowdoin's three alumni affinity groups traveled to campus in February and March for intensive weekend-long workshops to map out the path forward for their associations.
Alumni from the Black Alumni Association dine in Moulton
Members of the Bowdoin College Black Alumni Association dine in Main Lounge.

In early February, the Association of Bowdoin Latinx Alumni, or ABLA, was the first group to convene on campus to mingle, strategize, plan, and hear from College officials, including President Safa Zaki.

The next retreat, for the Bowdoin College Black Alumni Association (BCBAA), took place later in the month. Members of RepresentAsian came in early March. As a sign of its commitment to the mission of these groups, Bowdoin covered the costs of travel, lodging, and food for each participant. 

Joycelyn Blizzard, director of multicultural alumni engagement for the College, organized the retreats to gather alumni together, in person, after more than a year of virtual collaboration. The alumni, all volunteers, have committed many hours to create and build these relatively new alumni associations.

The gatherings served several purposes. “Some of these groups have been at this for two years, but they haven’t been in workshop with each other,” Blizzard said. “It's important to simply experience volunteers who’ve been working together, and to meet in person for the first time on campus.”

In each retreat, attendees focused on what they want to accomplish and how to go about doing it. “They've done this work virtually and asynchronously thus far, so they came together to plan the next twelve to eighteen months—and where they want to be in two years, three years,” Blizzard said.

The weekends included dinners catered by Bowdoin Dining, networking events with students, and opportunities to hear from Bowdoin students and administrators about what studying, living, and working at the College is like today.

President Zaki spoke at all three retreats. Others who shared updates included Scott Meikeljohn, interim senior vice president for development and alumni relations; Dan Olds, vice president of alumni relations and information systems; Eduardo Pazos Palma, director of multicultural student life; Benje Douglas, senior vice president for inclusion and diversity; Anthony Parker-Gills, director of THRIVE; Claudia Marroquin, senior vice president and dean of admissions and student aid; Kristin Brennan, executive director of Career Exploration and Development (CXD); and Katy Stern, director of institutional inclusion and diversity programs.

Blizzard said she and her colleagues in the Office of Development and Alumni Relations all observed a level of excitement from retreat participants that they thought was remarkable even for Bowdoin alumni (who tend to be very enthusiastic about their alma mater).

“The reality that keeps bubbling to the top for all these weekends is that about a third of attendees hadn't been to campus for more than ten years, some much longer,” Blizzard said. So, when they experience the Bowdoin of today, and get deeply involved in work to make a difference here, they leave with a “love of the place that is just amped up to a level I haven’t ever seen from these alumni collectively,” she added.

“We all have a passion and excitement about Bowdoin, that is why we're here. We want to give back as much as we can, so being face to face and interacting with people is what I'm excited about.”

—Rebbecca P. Wilson '07, Alumni Council, attended BCBAA Retreat)

Speaking about ABLA

The inaugural ABLA retreat brought together eight alumni who have been collaborating to establish their affinity group over the past year. One of their priorities over the weekend was to hammer out the details of a new mentorship program, Cafecito y Chisme, which they describe as community-building sessions by and for Latinx alumni and students.

These monthly sessions, which will be held online and hosted by a couple of alumni, will focus on different themes, including fostering relationships with professors, networking, wellness, and intersectional identities. “This is an opportunity to nurture and build connections with current students to allow them to tap into the alumni community early,” Blizzard said.

The group also addressed one of their challenges—how to encourage more Latinx alumni to get involved. With that goal in mind, the group is planning four in-person alumni events in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and New York the week of April 15. 

For these events, Blizzard said the group is “scouting out the coolest neighborhood venues. Or, we might just take over an alum's living room! The best part? Whichever happens, you'll be there, sharing your unique experiences with fellow Latinx alumni. We'll also be bringing the insights and highlights from our recent campus retreat for conversation.”

Additionally, ABLA members will be convening on campus for Reunion weekend, May 31-June 2. They invite interested alumni to connect with them at any of these upcoming gatherings.

“The biggest takeaway for me was seeing students' faces and their excitement to connect with Latinx alums and realizing that there is a supportive community ready and willing to support them on their Bowdoin experience and professional journey.”

—John Vegas ’93, ABLA president

Broadening the Community with BCBAA

About twenty-five members of BCBAA attended the recent February 23-24 retreat, representing class years from 1996 to 2023. Alex Haskins ’11, assistant professor of politics and international relations at Wheaton College, said he appreciated the chance to hear from Bowdoin graduates of varying ages.

It's personally gratifying “to connect with people across classes and to meet people I didn't actually go to Bowdoin with," he said, especially those who graduated in the 1970s and 1980s, whose stories about Bowdoin reveal how much the College has changed.

Rebbecca Wilson ’07, a pharmaceutical statistician and a member of the alumni council, said her goal for the retreat was to connect with more people, including students, “and have an ear to the ground to figure out what's going on, what's working well, and what's needed.”

One of the topics the group discussed was partnering with Admissions to help ensure a yield of Black students in the wake of the Supreme Court's inhibitive ruling on affirmative action. One strategy is for alumni in BCBAA—as well as the other affinity groups—to connect with admitted students in webinars and during recruitment weekends, such as Bowdoin Bearings.

The group also spoke about the possibility of organizing a symposium about John Brown Russwurm, the college’s first Black graduate, in 1826, and the Center that occupies the historic house, to help ensure it remains an integral part of the lives of students. For many older alumni, the Center was an important social hub, Blizzard said.

“Bowdoin is rapidly changing, for the better, in my mind. Being on campus and hearing from leaders driving that change was really informative and helpful in how it synchs up with the work we are doing.”

—Matt Yantakosol ’10, RepresentAsian president.

Strengthening RepresentAsian's Foundation

Eleven members of RepresentAsian put in a long day—8 a.m. to 11 p.m. on March 9—“and covered a lot of ground,” said Matt Yantakosol ’10, RepresentAsian president.

While they accomplished a lot—including defining their bylaws—the best part of the weekend may just have been being together. “The fact we were able to all be in the place for an entire weekend after working on this for about two years was great,” he said. “There is only so much you can do on a Zoom call. So, finally, to have that in-person time was incredible.”

They planned details of five upcoming regional events in May, in the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, DC, Boston, and New York, to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. And they decided they'll hold their annual meeting at Bowdoin Homecoming in the fall and have a presence during the June Reunion Weekend.

Yantakosol said the group wants to connect with more alumni in general, but in particular, is hoping to reach people who graduated in the decades before the 2000s. “We want to be representative of the broad Asian alumni base,” he said, noting that all the members of the steering committee graduated in 1998 or later. “And we want to know the history of the Asian experience at Bowdoin. We’re all curious and excited to learn more.”