Discovery Initiative: forming a human connection

“To me, it’s more about the human connection, than the money,” junior Jon Thornton said about his job with the Wheaton College Alumni Discovery Initiative, a program which started in 2011 by the Advancement and Alumni Relations Initiative. The program has been put on hold to consider the data it gathered and decide whether to move forward.  Thorton was one of the many students who participated in this three-year long program.
The Discovery Initiative is a program where Wheaton students connect with alumni by face-to-face interviews throughout the US and the world. Students conduct 45 minute interviews in their hometowns or cities while on college breaks. The alumni share their highs, lows and things they would or would not change about Wheaton. The data collected from these interviews is now being evaluated so the College can explore its strengths and areas that need improvement. Students are also able to connect with these alumni and peer into their lives.
Thornton said that he has heard alumni’s joys and pains through these interviews. He has been able to celebrate the birth of a new child or grieve the loss of a loved one with the alumni. In the interviews, the alumni walk through their lives, exploring details they may not have considered when previously sharing the main highlights of their life story. Thornton mentioned he had one interview that was over three hours long. Thornton said that working for DI has been a “transformational experience.”
Thornton said that alumni rarely reply to decline these interviews; more often, they simply do not reply to the email. Wheaton’s Discovery Initiative has had around a 30% response rate, while one school with a similar program has only a 4.5% response rate. The number of student representatives interviewing these alumni grew from seven in 2012, when the interview process began, to 21 representatives this summer.
Except for rare occasions when the alumna or alumnus lives on an island and can only do the interview over the phone, the interviews are always conducted in person. According to Thornton, alumni want to connect with students. While most interviews take place in a public setting such as a local coffee shop, some alumni may invite the student representatives into their homes.
Sitting barefoot in a cushioned chair, Thornton explained how the student representatives empathize with alumni’s feelings towards Wheaton, God and the church. Sometimes, those institutions have hurt the alumna or alumnus. However, according to Thornton’s experience, some alumni have turned from bitterness to reconsidering God in the space of one 45 minute interview because of this affirmation.
“The alumni have such great advice. I know, personally, interviewing alumni over the last year and a half has been transformational for my life,” Thornton added. “It’s been amazing to see how many of the Wheaton alumni have come to a place where they can, in times of struggle and times of joy, point to God.”
As of this fall semester, DI has paused its interviews so that it can evaluate the data received from the interviews. The three years of interviews have impacted both the alumni and the students. “I’ve gone away in tears from the interviews,” Thornton shared. “Not because I was sad but, because of the human connection I made.”

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