A school’s recognition and celebration of past students’ achievements can benefit its current students. But without a past, are new schools at a disadvantage? JUDE BARBACK talks to three high schools about the importance of alumni.

I am proud to say I attended Matamata College. If I get an opportunity to drop into conversation that I went to school with captain of the Silver Ferns Casey Williams or All Black Brendon Leonard, I will. Scrolling through the alumni section on the school’s website, I discover many successful people have attended Matamata College over the years: Minister of Justice Judith Collins, jockey Lance O’Sullivan, Olympic swimmer Matthew Stanley. Alumni sites like this one provoke the same curiosity about our contemporaries that social media sites do, but with a touch of nostalgia and pride seldom felt by looking through Facebook.

But a school’s alumni presence generally serves a greater purpose than merely sating people’s nosiness. Returning to Matamata College recently, I noticed the many honour boards in the school hall, names and years etched into wood, recognising the success of students over the years, including those who have achieved national representation in their chosen field.

It seems honour boards, alumni sites, and associations are more than bragging tools for a school. They allow a school’s presence to permeate beyond Year 13. ‘Where did you go to school?’ is up there with ‘what do you do?’ and ‘where do you live?’ for the most socially defining questions we like to ask each other.

Alumni associations help feed this notion. With events, magazines, and now social media driving communication, such associations are, in essence, forums for networking. Old boys will support fellow old boys’ businesses, for example. Some associations even hold alumni events overseas, giving those in Sydney, London, Hong Kong, New York, and other ex-pat hotspots a chance to reunite.

Hamilton Girls’ High School Old Girls’ Association is one of the more-established alumni associations, formed in 1914, a mere three years after the school was established, then as Hamilton High School (it was divided into boys’ and girls’ schools in 1955). Association president Dr Penelope Pollard believes for alumni associations to thrive and to be effective, they need a special environment. “The ingredients of this environment comprise a supportive principal and a number of active former pupils who make themselves relevant to the school.” Pollard believes alumni associations can help maintain the place of the school in the community, help with opportunities to showcase the school, co-operate with projects and fundraising.

Principal of Tauranga Boys’ College, Robert Mangan, describes the school’s Old Boys’ Association, which was established in 2008 at the college’s jubilee, as “extremely important”.

It seems jubilees and centennials provide the perfect opportunity for reflecting on a school’s past and the successful students who have added to its reputation and history.

“The Centennial celebrations were a magnet for present and past pupils to merge,” says Pollard of Hamilton Girls’ High School’s recent centennial. “The highlight for many was the morning tea for both old boys and old girls to mingle and renew friendships. Present pupils served food and escorted past students. Our girls created history boards through the ages with early photos of what the school was like at various times. These indirect methods are successful as students can make their own assessments of the past.”

It seems alumni associations allow students not only to look back and reflect on the past, but also to look forward to becoming a part of the association itself. Although defined by bygone schooldays, these associations exist in the present.

Tauranga Boys’ College’s head prefect for 2012, Hautapu Baker, is testament to this. A speaker at last year’s annual Tauranga Boys’ College Old Boys’ dinner, Baker said he “can’t wait to be part of the club”.

“I really want to belong to this association and recognise when my time comes it will be a privilege,” says Baker.

“I understand the value of tried and tested experience and wisdom that comes about through failure; the ability to overcome, then to take what is useful and apply it to oneself. These traits I believe are the true value of the old boys’ club. The collective experience of the many, then the fun, laughter, and memories that are shared and embellished as they are remembered and retold over and over again,” he says.

Indeed, a school’s alumni presence also serves to benefit the existing pupils, allowing them to aspire to the success of former students. This is often done tangibly, through the presentation of awards.

The Hamilton Girls’ Old Girls’ association created the Edith Collins Centennial Award, to celebrate the life and contribution of the School’s First Lady Assistant. It is awarded to a student of any level who has shown great service to the school, used her talents to add to the School’s history, and contributed to the wider community.

For many schools, the connection goes both ways, with recognition granted to former students who have gone on to achieve great things. The Hamilton High School Foundation has set up a prize for an outstanding Old Girl, the Annie Cooke award, in honour of the first female pupil to enrol at Hamilton High School. The inaugural winner in 2011 was Dr Kate Dewes, a peace activist.

Similarly, each year at Tauranga Boys’ College an Old Boy of the Year is honoured. These have included world champion rower Mahe Drysdale, former Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force Sir Bruce Ferguson, actor and playwright, Ian Mune, and most recently, Bryan Gould, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Waikato and a previous British Labour MP.

“Each of these Old Boys has been chosen for the characteristics they have exhibited as they have achieved their success. These characteristics are then emphasised to the boys in assembly in the hope they will grow their own self-belief that they also can achieve to a similar level,” says Mangan.

Given the success of its Old Boys, Tauranga Boys’ College students are not short of role models. A staggering seven Old Boys competed and represented New Zealand at last year’s London Olympics. During school assemblies, a student participant in the sports of the Olympians gave a background and profile of the Olympian, detailing the activities the Olympian was involved in as a student of Tauranga Boys’ College, and then his career pathway through to his achieving representative honours at the Olympics.

“We emphasise the achievement of our Old Boys across a range of pursuits: sporting, cultural, and academic. We regularly have Old Boys return to the college to tell us their story, share their experience, wisdom, and provide motivation to our present students to achieve success,” says Mangan.

The school’s top academic scholars have the opportunity to be mentored by successful Old Boys who have gone on and have achieved success in their chosen field.

Similarly, at Hamilton Girls’ High School, a mentoring programme has been introduced, allowing current students to learn and be inspired by former students. “Old Girls do not need to labour stories of past pupils and their achievements, but introduce them on relevant occasions,” says Pollard. “These pupils are more likely to be receptive to Old Girls telling of previous students at suitable times.”

“Having been a part of the Old Boys’ day, where you can measure yourself against an old boy, whether it be on the sports field, in the class room or at the dinner table and being able to see and hear the successes of these men is so encouraging,” says Baker. “As the next generation of Old Boys, we don’t have to look far for amazing role models.”

The importance attributed to its past is a fundamental part of Tauranga Boys’ College. The school’s emblem is Milo’s discobulus with the words ‘pergo et pergao’ underneath, which in essence means ‘I take up the work and carry it through’. One of the mission statements is ‘respecting the past in creating the future’.

For a new school, however, when there isn’t a ‘past’ to ‘respect’, is its lack of history perceived to be a disadvantage?

Steve Lindsey, principal of Papamoa College, which opened in 2011, says he is keen to establish ways and traditions of celebrating the success of former students. However, given the first graduands won’t emerge until three years’ time, it isn’t surprising that the focus is more on today than tomorrow.

Lindsey says that when the time comes, he will look to set up ways of connecting students to the school as they leave, such as a database for people to sign up to. He sees potential in social media to keep people connected and also likes the idea of an honour board recognising post-school success.

Lindsey believes it will become especially significant for the first students to go right through Papamoa College. Being a founding student is likely to take on more meaning over time.
Lindsey is very conscious of establishing the right sort of traditions and values from the outset and sticking to them. This wasn’t something Lindsey had given much thought to before taking the job, but in painting the blank canvas, he has become increasingly aware of the importance in setting the right tone for the school, both now and into its future.

“It is interesting being involved in this process,” he says. “What traditions do we want? There is a responsibility not to create things that are going to be stupid in 10 years time.”
For example, citizenship is one of the most important values embedded into life and learning at Papamoa College. Lindsey and his staff have worked hard to ensure citizenship is a significant aspect. A programme focused on citizenship has been established and one of the school’s most prestigious awards is based on outstanding citizenship.This, and other values, are the result of 20 years’ of experience; each one carefully considered.
After all, if a school is, in part, defined by its former students and its history, in the manner of Tauranga Boys’ College and Hamilton Girls’ High, a newer school is afforded the opportunity of shaping its past before it has begun, of making tomorrow’s history today.

Who knows what today’s students will go on to achieve? It is in a school’s best interests to recognise these achievements and feed them back into the school, so that current students can learn and aspire from accessible role models, and in turn, flourish and give back when the time comes.

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