June 19, 2009 | Myrna Anderson

Calvin uses Facebook and other marketing tools as a way for alumni to reconnect to the college and old friends and classmates.

Tommy Heyboer remembers a standout moment from the six months he has worked as e-communications coordinator for the Calvin department of alumni and public relations: “I was sending a Facebook message to 2,500 alumni, and I misspelled ‘alumni’ in the subject line …,” he said. “It was a typo. I was working very fast.”

Heyboer was working to establish uKnight, an online community populated exclusively by Calvin alumni. “It’s a really good networking tool,” he said. “We’re trying to give alumni another tool to try to re-connect with the college and with other alumni.”

The site, which launched in April, already has 3,000 subscribers. Like Facebook,  uKnight—whose tagline is “Uniting Calvin Alumni”—allows Calvin alums  to contact one another, post photos and join discussion groups dedicated to their particular interests.

Finding classmates

And uKnight has something Facebook doesn’t: the Calvin alumni directory, which allows the college’s 58,000 alumni—including the newly graduated Class of 2009—to look each other up. “You can get very specific when you search,” Heyboer said. “You can actually find your roommates, your classmates, the people you worked on Chimes with, and once you find them, you’re able to contact them.”

UKnight  is not building a worldwide alumni network, but uncovering it, emphasized Norm Zylstra, Calvin’s coordinator of student and young alumni programs: “There are alums out there already, hungering to help those who come behind them,” Zylstra said. “You hear story after story about young alums who went out and ran into Calvin people who were eager to help. And I think the idea is, these things happen by chance many times in the past. We want to be intentional—not hope it happens; make it happen.”

Marriages and newcomers

The directory and the various groups on uKnight allow alumni to keep up on each other’s lives, “That girl who lived in that dorm beside you who’s really cute—you can see if she’s married,” Heyboer said, adding that the site is already a popular spot for posting baby pictures of future alumni.

UKnight also allows alumni to search for one another based on interests, hobbies, vocation and location. “We’re allowing you to pair up with alumni that are similar to you,” Heyboer said. “You can’t go to Facebook and say, ‘I want to find someone who’s into photography who lives in Northern California.’ It allows you to find these people and begin a conversation with them or a relationship.

The uKnight community will be especially helpful to the Calvin alum who is relocating and searching for friends, a church and a job, Heyboer added. “That’s the reason why people should sign up. I don’t think it’s stretching anything to say a Calvin alum would be more willing to help someone from Calvin than somebody they’ve never met … The networking is going to be more successful because you have this common bond.”

A private space

And the community is safe: “We’re very interested in maintaining the privacy of our alumni information,” Heyboer said. “This protects against spam and people misusing sensitive information.” UKnight is part of a larger social networking effort at Calvin, said Luke Robinson, the Web manager in communications and marketing. “We have friended or reached out to alumni communities and friend communities on Facebook or other alumni on Twitter,” Robinson said. “Right now, to be in conversation with all these groups and individuals, I would need more hours in the day.”

Spending a lot of hours in conversation with Calvin alumni is a major part of Heyboer’s job, and he’s liking what he’s hearing about uKnight: “The fun part is getting e-mails back that say, ‘Thanks so much. I contacted one of my former roommates. It was really fun to reconnect with them.’”

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