Living for the weekend

Bob Alig

Meet the man who makes the magic happen for Penn's returning alumni each year at Commencement.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Like the enchanted village of Brigadoon, the tents and traditions of Alumni Weekend appear on campus for only a few brief hours then disappear into the mists to return the following year.

This year that will be May 16-18.

Alumni Weekend is an alternate University. Although the alums may be a bit grayer than the regular inhabitants of planet Penn, their activities are a mirror of actual campus life—going to lectures, asking questions, checking out the new Philly scene, meeting old friends and making new ones. The only thing missing is exams.

This year they can join a Community Partnership conference, participate in a 5K run, learn about “Democratization” from Penn’s best regional specialists, take a tour of the Penn Alexander School, try their hand at computer animation or hear Music Professor Guthrie Ramsey on African American music-making in Philadelphia.

The person in charge of this formidable appearing and disappearing act is Robert Alig (C’84,WG’87), assistant vice president for Alumni Relations. We asked him how he pulls it off.

Q. How many alumni are you expecting this year?
A.
We are expecting 7,000 to 9,000 alumni. I think when a student is admitted to Penn, it is not for a degree or for a finite period of time, but truly for a lifetime of engagement and enrichment. We are hoping that they reconnect with our diversity and the myriad intellectual, social and cultural resources that are Penn.

I think that everyone connects to Penn in a special way. For some people it might be athletics, for some people it might be a club or an organization that they were a part of, for other people it might be a faculty member that they were very close with. There is an energy and a vibrancy about this community, and ideally Alumni Weekend provides enough resources and exposure so that each alum can reconnect with whatever it was that made Penn a special place for them.

I would underscore that this is truly a university-wide event and it is made possible by cooperation and support from across campus, including schools and centers, Public Safety, Facilities, Housing [and Conference Services], the Office of Student Life and over 200 staff members of Development and Alumni Relations [who] come together to pull this off.

Q. What are your goals for this year’s Alumni Weekend?
A.
First and foremost, we want to showcase the physical transformation of campus—literally from Huntsman Hall to Levine Hall to the revitalized 40th Street corridor.

We will have a first-ever screening at the new movie theater of a brand-new movie that hasn’t been released yet called “Bruce Almighty” [starring Jim Carrey] that’s already sold out. We were able to secure access to the film through a Penn connection in Hollywood.

A year ago, we couldn’t offer a movie screening to our alumni, and it is part of Penn’s success that we have this amenity for faculty, staff, students and now for alumni.

Q. How do class reunions function in the mix of Alumni Weekend events?
A.
I think it is important to emphasize that this is not just for people celebrating their quinquenial reunions. This is an alumni weekend, not reunion weekend. There will be 30 class-specific reunion events over the course of the weekend.

Eighteen months ago, we invited the class leadership from the classes that ended in three and eight to come to campus for what was called “Penn Reunion Leadership Conference.” That was to help energize them, to begin planning, programming and outreach to their classmates. We had never done that before.

We are hoping that this year, for the first time, we see the results of that effort, which was a collaboration between Alumni Relations and our colleagues at the Penn Fund. We essentially brought the gift-giving piece and the programming piece together.

Q. There are tents to put up, there is catering and accommodations to arrange. Is it a logistical nightmare?
A.
We work very closely with an incredible team of Penn staff members from programs and special events in Central Development and they are literally our partners. They have expertise and creativity and vision and invariably we say to them, “OK, we want it to be spectacular, we want it to be special, we want it to be something that people will remember, but we also have to do it within a very constrained budget.”

This year for the first time we are doing something completely different. We have moved from Superblock [Hamilton Village], where the majority of the tents were in the past, and now we are all going to be on Hill Field, which is an opportunity for us to have everyone together. We are going to close off 33rd Street between Walnut and Chestnut and create a Philly-themed block party [from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.] to truly celebrate the fact that we are part of a great city and the resources that comes with being a part of an urban environment.

Q. Are there some perennially favorite activities for Alumni Weekend?
A.
There is [President Judith] Rodin’s town hall talk in 200 College Hall [11 to 11:45 a.m.] That’s probably the highlight of the day for many alums that want to get her perspective on what’s happening on campus. The other is [Russell E. Palmer Professor of Finance] Jeremy Siegel’s talk, “Perspectives on the Market” [9 to 11 a.m., Zellerbach Theatre]. This year Peter Lynch (WG’68) [vice-chairman of Fidelity Management and Research Company] is going to be participating as well. It is especially topical this year because the market is so much in flux. Professor Siegel has a fantastic ability to connect with an audience and they love learning from him.

Q. Are you an alum?
A.
I got the fat envelope from [Dean of Admissions] Lee Stetson. Lee literally welcomed me to this place. I was from Dayton, Ohio. I had never been to Philadelphia before. I walked down Locust Walk in April 1980 and instantly fell in love with this place. I loved the fact that it was urban. I loved the fact that I could be part of this city. I loved the fact that many of the people I saw didn’t look like I looked. I just felt at home. I came here, majored in American history, met my wife in High Rise East, came back in 1987 and got my MBA at Wharton and then spent five years traveling the globe communicating the message of Penn’s incredible business school in 35 different countries.

Now I have the opportunity to help a quarter of a million alums all over the world to share the passion and the energy of this place. Going back to that first day—no matter how bad my day was or how difficult my challenges are, if I walk down Locust Walk I feel energized and that is a great feeling.

Q. Do you have a favorite Alumni Weekend moment?
A.
When the parade of classes starts —the way the parade is set up so that the oldest classes march first and they march through the current graduating seniors—when you see that incredible enthusiasm from the seniors for the people who went before them, there really is a respect for what Penn has become and our traditions, but also a sense of the importance of giving back to continue that. You can’t help but feel great about that.

Q. Who is in charge of the weather for Alumni Weekend?
A.
If only I could find out.

Originally published on May 15, 2003