Engagement Gets Personal: PILLARs Program Connects Alumni With Volunteer Opportunities Tailored to Their Skills
Tania Galarza (MBA’05) was feeling grateful for the McDonough School of Business — the school that had provided her a stellar education, opportunities, and career preparation. She wanted to give back. She just wasn’t sure how.
That’s where the Partners in Leadership, Learning, and Research (PILLARs) program came into play. PILLARs is the umbrella organization for all McDonough alumni engagement. When alumni raise their hands, PILLARs helps them discover or create a volunteer opportunity tailored to their skills or expertise. And more alumni than ever have been raising their hands during the pandemic.
Galarza, senior director of marketing integrated strategy at Marriott International, was connected directly to the MBA program, where she is a member of the MBA Alumni Advisory Council (MAAC). She spoke with Prashant Malaviya, senior associate dean for MBA programs, about his goals and plans for the program. Then Galarza was off and running.
She first volunteered as a judge in the Executive Challenge case competition. Then she helped create an MBA mentoring program and became chair of the MAAC Mentorship Committee. To date, she has served as mentor for three mentees. She also has given six or so guest lectures to MBA marketing and leadership classes.
“I was looking for the right opportunities to give back,” Galarza says. “Once I started to do one thing, I was really motivated because I could see, by bringing my professional experiences to the table, I could have an immediate and long-term impact.”
A Positive During the Pandemic
PILLARs has grown substantially during the pandemic, with 117 alumni involved in 2021 compared to 73 in 2020.
Lauren Apicella, director of alumni relations who oversees PILLARs, points to several reasons: Involvement in PILLARs is easier now that everyone is accustomed to using Zoom, which provides more flexibility and ultimately more opportunities compared to traveling to campus. On top of that, there has been a greater desire during the pandemic throughout society to give back and help others, she says.
In addition, PILLARs received renewed attention when COVID-19 hit and McDonough launched the Hoyas Helping Hoyas campaign to assist students who had lost internships and jobs. McDonough Career Services and the Office of Alumni Relations reached out to McDonough alumni, who rallied to help provide new internships and positions to students in summer 2020. That strengthened the connection between alumni and McDonough, invigorating the PILLARs program, Apicella says.
Volunteers don’t have to be McDonough alumni, either. They can be any Georgetown alumni, parents of students, or community members, Apicella says.
Volunteer participation has been essential in helping students make the connection between classroom theory and concepts and real-world situations, says Charles Skuba, professor of the practice in marketing and international business.
Several guest speakers have spoken via Zoom and in person to Skuba’s students. Pam Cloud (C’92), a former marketing executive from Tiffany & Co., shared that company’s jewelry merchandising strategies to his luxury marketing class.
Elizabeth Ross-Ronchi (MBA’99), vice president and general manager from American Express Global Commercial Services, spoke to Skuba’s Executive MBA class about how her company segments customers and their value propositions. She also spoke to Skuba’s international business and public policy class, where she shared how American Express creates a global marketing plan.
Aleco Azqueta (C’98), vice president of marketing at Bacardi Grey Goose vodka, mesmerized students as he explained how he develops a global marketing strategy, Skuba says.
“We teach theory and proven research behind the theory,” Skuba says. “But what students really find to be rewarding and educational is when they see the theory applied. The ability to have current executives speak to how theory is being applied in the marketplace really brings things to life. It makes words on a slide much more tangible and engaging.”
As a guest speaker, since the pandemic started, Galarza has participated in one in-person event and several by Zoom. In each case, she was intentional about being authentic and transparent. “I made sure to share the positives and upswings of my company — what it went through and I’d gone through — and also the down times and challenging times.”
She also impressed upon students the importance of being flexible in their career as challenges arise. “It’s not just about applying the framework,” she says. “You take that framework, and you adjust and adapt and flex with the situation at hand.”
From her perspective, the students were highly engaged and appreciative of her transparency. “I wanted them to feel like they could reach out to me after class and know they could ask any type of question or seek any kind of guidance.” Their enthusiasm has been the “fuel” for her to keep returning to the classroom, she says.
A Breadth of Opportunities
Alumni engagement also exposes students to the breadth of opportunities they could seek out with a business degree, Apicella says. For example, undergraduates may think a finance career leads only to Wall Street, but guest speakers introduce them to alternative avenues.
Providing students with a variety of guest speakers is even more important as everyone faces “Zoom fatigue,” Skuba says. “It adds more characters to the play. We try to create teaching environments and learning experiences that are engaging and entertaining, and the PILLARs program has incredible value in allowing us to bring in people and refresh our classes.”
While guest speaking is valuable, it’s not the only way people can become involved. Volunteers can be mentors to individual students, work with student clubs, provide interview prep sessions for different industries, and work on special classroom projects, such as helping students develop business strategies or marketing plans based on the volunteer’s company.
For an undergraduate strategy course, students were previously tasked with developing a business strategy for any public company of their choosing. However, through
PILLARs, the professor worked with the Georgetown Business Improvement District, which connected students to local businesses to create a real-world strategy. This was particularly valuable to D.C. small businesses and restaurants that had lost income during the pandemic, Apicella says.
Alumni also can help with the admissions process by reviewing applications and talking with prospective students. Alumni have offered their workplaces to faculty for research and have cowritten case studies with them.
To become involved, interested alumni first connect with Apicella to discuss how they would like to help. Then, she begins her “matchmaking” with potential projects or classes, ultimately providing the alumnus with a few options to choose from.
Sharing their expertise and getting to know students at their alma mater has been rewarding for alumni, as well — especially as the world passes the pandemic two-year mark.
“There is more appreciation than ever among our alumni about giving back to others and to their alma mater,” Skuba says. “They have these incredible, impressive careers, and they’ve amassed a lot of knowledge and experience, and our students really appreciate them sharing that with others.
“I think it becomes very rewarding for very successful professionals to have an opportunity to share their experience and learning, particularly through an institution they love,” he adds. “There’s a strong emotional reward in working with PILLARs.”
This story was originally featured in the Georgetown Business Spring 2022 Magazine.