“When you’re looking at schools as a high school kid, there’s a moment when you think, ‘Wow, this is a place I can make home,’” said Cunningham, who was recently announced as Lehigh’s new assistant vice president for alumni engagement. “Coming to Lehigh was the same kind of feeling for me as a professional. I immediately felt like Lehigh and I would be a great fit on all fronts.”
Cunningham was attracted by Lehigh’s academic prowess, as well as the reputation of its dedicated alumni and fans. Yet it was the people she talked to during the interviews that impressed her most. “Everyone I met shared an enthusiasm for where Lehigh is going,” she said. “My interview with the president put me over the edge. His vision for taking Lehigh’s reputation worldwide is really exciting.”
As the assistant vice president of alumni engagement, starting January 25, Cunningham will provide the strategy and direction for the ways in which Lehigh engages with alumni through the Alumni Association. In this position, she will be working closely with the Lehigh University Alumni Association (LUAA) Board of Directors, as well as alumni and volunteers across the country and around the world.
Her role, she says, is nurturing the one of-a-kind lifelong relationships between Lehigh University and its graduates. “There are thousands of great universities around the world, but what makes a university unique is its alumni network. My job is to make sure you can access that network and have the opportunities to connect in the way that means the most to you.”
Cunningham’s career in alumni relations had its roots in her parents’ connection to their alma mater, Cornell. “When I was about seven years old, my father paid me to put stamps on envelopes for his class annual fund mailing. So one of my first paid jobs ever was in alumni affairs,” Cunningham laughs.
With this foundation, it’s no wonder service and volunteering is part of her DNA. After attending Cornell herself, she volunteered for her alma mater for 15 years as she pursued a successful marketing and advertising career that took her from New York to Seattle and back again. Upon returning to the East Coast, she found a new position with Cornell, this time working formally for alumni affairs. Most recently, she served as senior director of metrics and marketing in Cornell's Office of Alumni Affairs and Development since 2010. She also managed the Cornell Alumni Association for the past five years.
Cunningham uses her strong background in marketing and analytics to make smart decisions. “In alumni relations, there’s a temptation to chase down every good idea. You can end up doing good stuff that’s not tied together strategically, and spreading yourself too thin. ”Using data allows you to see what is resonating with alumni, parents and friends. It helps you understand what motivates new people to become engaged and what inspires the already engaged to attend even more events, expand their volunteerism, and increase their philanthropy,” she says.
A Lehigh “in-law” three times over (her husband’s father, sister, and step brother are all graduates), Cunningham is no stranger to the university family. She is already looking forward to going on the road to meet alumni, and is thinking of ways to get to know those farther afield. “I would like to set up some virtual meetings to do some Q&A sessions, to find out what I should know. I really want to listen for a few months to get acclimated, and I want alumni to talk honestly with me and give me advice.”
Jennifer Cunningham officially assumes her post as assistant vice president for alumni engagement on January 25, 2016. Please watch for opportunities to share your input and connect with her in the new year.