Giving Back: UM-Flint alumni discover the rewards of volunteering

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UM-Flint alumni volunteers Kim Knag ('96, '01), Kimberly Coulter (00, '07), and Amanda Forsmark ('09)
UM-Flint alumni volunteers Kim Knag ('96, '01), Kimberly Coulter (00, '07), and Amanda Forsmark ('09)

The University of Michigan has the largest living alumni body of any university in the world, and that group includes all those that graduated from UM-Flint as well.

But there's something that sets University of Michigan-Flint graduates apart from the rest: their commitment to giving back.

Alumni volunteers are the heart of UM-Flint's Alumni Relations office and play a major role in nearly every university-wide event held on campus. From "Go Blue on the Bricks" to commencement, UM-Flint alumni continue to create and sustain signature programs with their dedication, expertise, and enthusiasm.

In the last year alone, nearly 150 alumni provided more than 1,000 hours of volunteer service to the Flint campus.

Each volunteer can offer a list of reasons for why they give of their time and energy, but one reason appears at the top of each one: they volunteer for the students.

Kim Knag ('96, '01) spent nearly 30 years with DTE Energy in a variety of roles before retiring in 2015. Knag started his career with DTE as a linesman before transitioning to management after earning his BBA and, later, an MBA from the School of Management. But, whether repairing lines at the top of 100-foot utility poles or overseeing staff as a member of management, his perspective has always let him see things "from the top."

After retirement, Knag began to explore his "next chapter in life," volunteering with a variety of organizations in the Flint community. These efforts eventually led him back to his alma mater and UM-Flint's Office of Alumni Relations.

"I tried several volunteer experiences when I retired but I wasn't necessarily satisfied with them," said Knag. "I was struggling to find the right fit for me, one that would allow me to draw on my experience and expertise."

"Then I found volunteering with the alumni at UM-Flint and I've really enjoyed it. I loved going to school there, loved how it fed my desire for intellectual stimulation," Knag continued. "When I began to volunteer with them, I immediately saw ways that I could be involved, enhance their programs, and, most importantly, add to the educational experience for current students."

According to Mary Jo Sekelsky, Executive Director for Alumni Relations and interim Vice Chancellor for University Advancement, saying Knag is "involved" is an understatement.

"Since Kim began volunteering with us, he has quickly become one of the more engaged alumni volunteers we have," she said. "Whether it's helping us with the Career Fair, strategic planning, commencement, or any other activity, Kim is always willing to lend a hand in support of our students."

Knag hopes that his story will inspire other alumni to become involved as well.

"There are many alumni out there that have so much to offer the campus and the current students," said Knag. "UM-Flint does a wonderful job educating students and preparing them for a lifetime of learning. As alumni, we can assist by sharing our experience and talents, and help students make that transition from education to employment."

But not all alumni have the sort of time to devote to volunteering that retirees can enjoy. For those with less availability, Alumni Relations has implemented several programs that leverage the talents of alumni while respecting the time constraints of modern life – employment, family, and everything else that comes with it.

"There is an old adage that we engage with alumni to benefit from their time, talent, and treasures. As an alumni office, we were missing some opportunities to leverage the talent part of that equation," said Matt Bueby, Alumni Relations and Career Center Assistant. "These new volunteer programs move us in that direction and provide meaningful volunteer experiences in a condensed format."

UM-Flint's new alumni volunteer opportunities provide students with real-world advice and tips on post-graduation success. One new initiative is a career panel series that is part of students' regular coursework and features alumni sharing their career experiences. Another volunteer opportunity is participating in a cohort of alumni willing to have one-on-one chats with students about their career paths.

Kimberly Coulter ('00, '07) has a full plate as a school principal with a family at home. While free time is hard to come by, Alumni Relations' career panels offer this former UM-Flint tour guide, peer advisor, and student leader the chance to be involved while managing a tight schedule.

Recently, Coulter and three other sociology graduates participated in a career panel for nearly 70 sociology students, providing advice about college, careers, and life after graduation.

"I had a wonderful time as a student at UM-Flint, and I am very happy to give a little bit of my time to try and inspire students and let them know that they can reach their goals," said Coulter. "I wanted to give current students some practical knowledge that they could use immediately, and also motivate them by showing them that they can succeed just as I have."

Coulter, too, gained something from the volunteer experience.

"Volunteering on the panel was wonderful and proved to be a great way to network with several of the alumni that also had unique stories to share," she said. "For that one hour, I got to feel like I was a mentor to the entire class. It was immensely rewarding and exciting to think that the ripple effect of volunteering might play a role in the students' completing their degree."

Career panels like the one in which Coulter participated are just one way that Alumni Relations and the Career Center are connecting current students with alumni mentors. New "Information Chats" are one-on-one conversations between a student and an alumnus that provide students the opportunity to hear first-hand about current trends in their chosen field, discuss the pros and cons of continuing their education at the graduate level, or ask questions about their career path.

Amanda Forsmark ('09) is a Health Educator at Great Lakes Bay Health Centers who recently volunteered to assist a graduating senior in learning more about the field of health education. Forsmark was an active student leader in her time on campus, in particular with efforts related to raising awareness about alcohol abuse, safe sex, and AIDS.

She credits the connections she made at UM-Flint with helping her to find her professional calling.

"I loved my experience at UM-Flint, and several of the people I met there have paved the way for me to find a career I enjoy and one at which I'm successful," said Forsmark. "One of my advisors connected me to an alumna while I was in school, and she helped me to understand that there were career opportunities that educate people about the very issues I was working on as a student."

"Now I have a job that pays me to pursue my passion," she said. "And I'm so excited to have the chance to play that same role for current students."

Forsmark was recently connected to a student who was looking for guidance about a future in health education. She was happy to help, and, since the connection was made with only the exchange of a few emails, it was easy to fit into her busy schedule.

"I view my volunteering as a way to continue that legacy for the next generation of students that need very practical advice about things such as attending graduate school, obtaining specialized certifications for their careers, insights into the job market, and other issues around balancing compensation and their personal lives and passions," said Forsmark. "The email chat I had with the student allowed her to ask those sorts of questions of someone that has firsthand knowledge of the situation. I hope that more alumni will help our deserving students."

If you are a UM-Flint alumnus looking for a chance to give back to campus through volunteering, visit our alumni volunteer page to learn more about upcoming volunteer opportunities.

Brent is the Alumni Relations Manager in the Office of University Advancement. Contact him with questions related to alumni programs, activities, and services.