Cheers to Alumni Mentorship

After extended instruction from expert Robyn Duda ’04, students put together a successful on-campus event to celebrate the College.

By: Meghan Kita  Wednesday, March 20, 2019 09:40 AM

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Students raise a glass to Muhlenberg at the first student-run Student THAW.

On the evening of January 17, a line of students began at the Seegers Union Event Space, continued through the Light Lounge and wrapped around the corner down the hallway toward the Wood Dining Commons. They awaited the start of the first student-run Student THAW (Toast Heard Around the World), an event that invites Mules past and present to toast to the College simultaneously.

It wasn’t the first Student THAW—that happened in 2018—but it was on pace to surpass the previous event’s attendance before the doors even opened. The secret? Smart marketing—and free stuff. Emily Jordan ’19, a media & communication major, ran the event’s Instagram account, and her parents donated Muhlenberg-branded Moscow Mule mugs for the first 100 guests to arrive.

“You don’t really know how many people are going to show up to school-sponsored events,” Jordan says. “It wasn’t a shock to see how many people came, but it was a very nice surprise.”

The Launch of a Successful “Experiment”

The 10 students who orchestrated the event learned from an expert: Robyn Duda ’04 (pictured), an event strategy and design professional who lives in Philadelphia. At Muhlenberg, Duda was a political science and business administration double major who planned the largest student-run event on campus at the time, the Henry Awards, using upwards of $15,000 in activities fees.

“It was a big deal to plan and a huge budget to have to manage,” Duda says. “That’s what helped me get my first job: It was something I was able to talk about in interviews.”

Duda had spoken at Muhlenberg, hosted student shadows and even hired some alumni, but she was interested in doing something more tangible: helping students gain real event-planning experience they could put on their resumes and leverage while job hunting. She reached out to the Career Center’s Pat Fligge ’10, director of alumni and parent engagement, to pitch a program she calls The Experience Experiment.

“In the Career Center, we’ve been thinking of what group activities we can put together using alumni expertise but really benefiting students,” Fligge says. Duda’s idea “fit the model we’re looking for.”

Interested students had to apply to join the Experience Experiment, an uncredited program that began in October and culminated with the January event, presented in partnership with the Office of Student Affairs. Those who were accepted received eight weeks of instruction on strategy, design and marketing from Duda, who drove to campus Thursday nights to teach. A group of four other alumni—Tom Glancy ’14, Robyn Goldberg ’16, Andrew Kalish ’06, Kate Santore ’06 and Scott Norville ’02—supported the effort, coming to campus or joining via video chat for a session in their areas of expertise. Either Fligge or Melissa Bodnar ’13, associate director of alumni affairs, attended each week and served as staff liaisons.

Each two-hour “class” focused on a different milestone in the planning process, with the first third of the time reserved for that night’s lecture, the second third for questions and discussion and the final third for actual planning. The students worked outside their Thursday night meetings, alone and as a group, to keep the effort afloat between sessions.

“They were the team and I was their coach—that was the language we used,” Duda says. “They had to do the work because I wanted them to understand that if they didn’t do something, there were repercussions.”

To Event Night, and Beyond

When go-time came around, the students got to experience the hectic energy that’s typical no matter how well an event is planned. The group gathered two hours ahead of the 6 p.m. start time to set up and decorate. Duda was on site to answer questions and give suggestions and encouragement when things went awry, like when the DJ didn’t show up until two minutes before the event was to begin.

“It was kind of nerve-wracking, but Robyn kept us very calm,” Jordan says. “She told us, ‘These kinds of things happen in events.’”

More than 300 students attended Student THAW, which had food, drinks, music, circus performers, giveaways and even an indoor ice-skating rink. And when the night was over, the next phase of The Experience Experiment began: continued mentoring and networking opportunities for the eight seniors and two sophomores involved in the process.

“I want to make sure I devote a proper amount of time to helping the students who participated,” Duda says. “I know not all of them want to be in events, but my alumni network and network outside Muhlenberg is pretty vast.”

Duda says that, despite being a highly engaged alum for many years, “I actually feel like this is the first time that I’m truly making a difference. I was them: I wanted to do something different after graduation and didn’t know how to get there. I tried to design a program that I wanted to exist when I was in school.”