Posted: April 19, 2021

Ag Alumni Society finds creative ways to stay connected and involve even more alumni than ever before.

Image: James Yang

Image: James Yang

Physical distancing and stay-at-home recommendations due to COVID-19 have halted many of the activities that people count on to feel anchored to each other, including those organized by the College of Agricultural Sciences Alumni Society. But that hasn't stopped Ag Alumni Society leaders from devising creative ways for its 34,000 members, located throughout the world, to strengthen their bonds with one another, the college, and current students.

"In this year of unparalleled challenges, it is important for us to stay connected as a Penn State family. For my office, that means keeping our alumni engaged and informed," said Alan Schaffranek, director of alumni relations. "When our in-person gatherings had to be canceled, our alumni society pressed on, using technology and a shared spirit to come together virtually. As a result, many alumni who in the past haven't been able to make it to campus to participate in alumni events can now participate from anywhere in the world. That has made the experience richer for everyone."

A New Way to Connect

One of the most recent examples is the Ag Alumni Society's annual reunion, Ag Live, which took place virtually in November. More than 100 attendees enjoyed the camaraderie of their fellow alumni and friends during Zoom get-togethers, which included the Ag Advocate program reunion, a virtual photo booth, an Ag Hill trivia game, and presentations by student organizations.

They also held an online auction, with proceeds going to student scholarships, internship awards, and other alumni programs. A "text to give" fundraiser (text AG LIVE to 41444), which will continue through June 2021, complemented the auction proceeds, as did contributions by gold sponsors the Pennsylvania Propane Foundation, Giorgio Fresh, and the Giorgi Mushroom Company. In total, Ag Live raised more than $21,000.

In the early days of the pandemic, the society's spring meeting, which coincides with Blue and White Weekend, was held virtually. Because the game was canceled, Schaffranek came up with another way to celebrate: a virtual tailgate lunch held after the meeting.

During this tailgate, the alumni socialized, sang the "Alma Mater," and enjoyed a trumpet rendition of "Fight on State" played by member Susan McNulty-Atwater, a 1999 graduate of the college. Members also recorded video messages of congratulations to share with graduating seniors.

"For a few members, this was their first time attending a virtual meeting," Schaffranek said. "Our office sent instructions on logging in and helpful hints on how to participate. There are positive outcomes associated with virtual programming--the most notable being an increase in board and committee participation. And we added new participants from the West Coast and elsewhere."

In addition, the college also features networking events, webinars, professional development, and various kinds of programming. One event is "College Connections," a monthly webinar series moderated by Dean Rick Roush that gives a unique, inside perspective of the programs, people, priorities, and partnerships of the Penn State College of Ag Sciences. Held the third Wednesday of every month from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m., audiences are invited to interact with college personnel and guest speakers to learn how the college is impacting Pennsylvania agriculture and communities across the Commonwealth. The first webinar featured "News and Views from Penn State Animal Science with Department Head Adele Turzillo," as well as an update on the new Animal, Veterinary, and Biomedical Sciences Building project. Registration and recordings can be found on the College Connections website.

"Our goal is to use virtual space as a means to connect with all those who love Penn State and to foster friendship during this time," said Lisa Kirby, president of the Ag Alumni Society. "We see this as another way to engage, connect, and serve alumni and friends."

Student Opportunities

The Ag Alumni Society's Student Engagement Committee partnered with Lori Connelly, director of experiential learning and career services, to pilot a virtual job shadowing experience called Career Quick Connect. The program was designed to help current undergraduate students connect with alumni and explore potential career paths through one-to-one virtual meetups. The collaboration stemmed from a student focus group held by the Student Engagement Committee before the pandemic.

An upcoming event featuring the Environmental Resource Management Student Society will gather current students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends for an ERM Family Game Night. This event will kick off the program's 50th Anniversary Celebration with a trivia night. More information can be found at

After the Pandemic

Even after pandemic restrictions are lifted, the Ag Alumni Society will continue to offer online activities, from breakout panels and work sessions to new webinars linking students to industry professionals. More information can be found on the College of Agricultural Sciences Alumni website.

"We look forward to providing new virtual programming and engagements in 2021 and beyond, but we also look forward to a time when we can gather safely in person," he said. "In a way, it is a whole new community. We are launching something that will bring people together from all around the world, not just Pennsylvania."

Schaffranek reminds alumni of the benefits of joining the Penn State Alumni Association, including access to career-related resources, members-only communications, and unlimited storage on Google Drive. More information is available on the Penn State Alumni Association website.