Different makerspaces may produce unique groups of alumni that have had experiences specific to their engagement. For example, committed student staff members will likely have a deeper and more formative experience than the casual occasional project-specific user, although it is valuable to provide outreach and maintain connections to both groups of alumni. At Stanford, we recently received a letter from an alumnus who had seen a seconds-long video showcasing the Product Realization Lab as part of a Stanford reel on ESPN during a football game. He had taken a course in the lab nearly two decades ago, but those few moments of video brought back strong memories of his experience. Due in large part to the fully integrative nature of coursework that involves hands-on making as part of the design and engineering process, the memories formed during this work are deep and meaningful.
Connecting with students after they graduate provides them with time to create a frame of reference, to give context to their experiences in a makerspace. They may realize how special and unique their community and resources were relative to colleagues or friends from other institutions, and capturing their reflections can be valuable for garnering support within the university setting. Stories in a student’s own voice can be powerful tools.
At Stanford, the Product Realization Lab is staffed primarily by a group of graduate student teaching assistants who each work in the lab for 20 hours a week. This group quickly becomes a tight community, and they help set the tone of a safe and enjoyable workplace for their fellow students. Annual reunion gatherings typically bring back 100 alumni teaching assistants from across several decades. This group offers networking opportunities to their fellow alums who have been “vetted” with a known set of skills and experiences.
Alumni can also provide valuable support to a makerspace by lending their time, expertise, or financial support to the organization. Successful alumni that credit some of their accomplishments to their experiences in a makerspace or course can share stories to motivate current students, as well as help facilitate fund raising. An example of alumni stories can be found here. An advisory committee of alumni can advise and support a makerspace’s leadership, which can be particularly helpful with undraising efforts, either personally or through their networks. Capital growth and equipment campaigns can leverage feelings of nostalgia and community from alumni. Many people relish the opportunity to give back to future generations of makerspace students in material way. However, raising operating funds from alumni can be a balancing act: some alumni feel that operating budgets should be covered by an institution (though this is frequently not the case), and feel more comfortable supporting something tangible like a large equipment purchase or naming opportunities. Cultivating relationships with alumni takes time and resources, but can be a very rewarding and worthwhile effort. Future students in makerspaces can benefit from the shared knowledge and financial support that alumni can provide.