Alumni Bring Real-World Expertise to the Classroom Through PILLARS Program

MiM Classroom
Photo taken pre-COVID-19.

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The importance of community was more relevant than ever in 2020. While the McDonough community was unable to come together and support one another physically, many sought out ways to connect virtually. As a result, Georgetown McDonough saw a significant increase in the number of alumni  who participated in the school’s new Partners in Leadership, Learning, and Research (PILLARs) program.

The PILLARs program helps prepare students for a rapidly changing, increasingly global world. Partners include alumni, parents, and friends of Georgetown and their organizations. These partners connect classroom lessons to dynamic issues in their own workplaces in D.C., across the nation, and around the world, where students and faculty can develop, test, and apply emerging concepts and tools. 

“In creating PILLARs, we imagined a student experience that connects the quality teaching and academic perspectives in our classrooms with the changing real-world experiences of our alumni and parents,” said Paul Almeida, dean and William R. Berkley Chair. “This mix of theory and practice allows students to grow their networks and connect with our broader community while also preparing them for success after graduation.” 

Over the last year, more than 100 alumni  participated in the PILLARs program. This contributed to the nearly 500 alumni who took part in giving back to Georgetown McDonough since the onset of the pandemic. Participation during this time ranged from speaking in undergraduate and graduate classes, attending office hours, and taking the time to speak with students.

There are many ways for alumni and other partners to be involved in substantive ways in the school’s teaching and research activities. In addition to serving as guest lecturers, participants can host students, faculty, and staff at their workplaces.

Michael O’Leary, senior associate dean for Executive Custom Programs and teaching professor of management, shared how rewarding the program has been for both the students and the alumni.

“For the students, it’s about credibility,” he said. “What’s more credible than an alumnus who has powered through failures and notched incredible successes? Students learn so much more deeply when what we are teaching is paired with real-life examples from alumni with rich personal and professional stories. For the alumni, it’s tremendously energizing to be back in the classroom and a great chance to hear what’s on the mind of a room full, or a Zoom-ful!, of super smart young Hoyas.” 

Over the past few years, student teams in O’Leary’s classes have worked with numerous alumni on special projects. 

“For example, they helped Lisa Thompson (EML’15) assess which college markets made the most sense as targets for her to expand the business she started when she was a student herself,” O’Leary said. “Lisa took that advice, tripled her college licenses, and has hired McDonough students as interns.”

Lee Pinkowitz, associate professor of finance, has found advantages in the virtual environment to connect students and alumni more informally. Since last summer, he has invited more than 50 alumni to drop into his virtual office hours for multiple courses. There was no formal program, he said, simply an opportunity for students to connect with alumni across graduation years and industries.

The feedback from the students was incredibly positive, and the alumni really enjoyed getting to talk with students in an informal small group setting,” he said. “Some of the alumni already have made repeat visits, and nearly all of the others indicated they would be happy to do it again. While there are challenges with teaching in a virtual environment, the ability to enhance connections among members of our Georgetown community is a tremendous opportunity we have embraced.”

The PILLARs program strengthens the lifelong connections of alumni to their alma mater while providing a meaningful way to help students on their journey.  

“Some of the most valuable experiences when I was a student was when professors brought in external speakers,” said Elizabeth Ross-Ronchi (MBA’99), who recently shared her insights with students as part of the PILLARs program. “We were able to combine the theoretical, the research, and learning over time with a very present practical application. That was a balance Georgetown struck very well when I was going through the program, and I view that as a way that I can give back.” 

For more information on the PILLARs program, please visit https://msb.georgetown.edu/partners-in-leadership-learning-research-pillars/.