Professor Emeritus Alex Chen is the kind of professor who likes to keep in touch. In the 35 years he has been at the University of Maryland, he has slowly built his Rolodex to a near-crippling size, brimming with the whereabouts of former students. With so many alums landing in the Baltimore/Washington area after graduation, Alex found that many were keen to meet up over a bite to eat, an appealing prospect because, as Alex says, he “isn’t one to turn down a good meal.” As he neared retirement last year, the lunches grew in size and frequency, often gathering alums from different classes, but who happened to work in the same area. With Alex’s dedication and, of course, planning, what started as a simple way to keep in touch has now morphed into Lunch with Alums, a semi-regular informal alumni outreach program that offers former URSP students a venue where they can connect, reminisce and catch up outside of the office.
In the past two years, Lunch with Alums has grown at a quick clip. Alex is now arranging lunch meet-ups about once a month, from Howard County to Old Town Alexandria, gathering anywhere from two to ten alumni at a time. The lunches follow a familiar routine. First, everyone goes around the table introducing themselves, including their program(s) and graduation year. This is followed by some shoptalk, as well as updates on what’s happening at the school and with the program. Alums then compare notes on projects—what’s new, frustrations and victories—as well as job opportunities and events around town. Occasionally the lunch includes a special guest; Alex has been known to bring along current students so they can share interests and network with each other. MAPP’s new Dean, Sonia Hirt, joined a group in College Park in April. The new URSP program director, Casey Dawkins, plans to join a few lunches later this year. And, while this was initially a project that Alex undertook because of his keen desire to stay connected, the lunches have turned into a real service for both alumni and the school. This month, Alex is bringing new URSP faculty member Ariel Bierbaum, whose research interests focus on schools, on a lunch trip to meet alums Lynette Washington (URPD ‘11) and Nichole Stewart (M.C.P. ‘09) who both work for Baltimore City Schools.
“Getting together and re-connecting is a big part of the lunches, but our alumni are very eager to share their experiences and ideas,” said Alex. “More than once a lunch has led to a mentorship or internship for a current student. Our alumni are a great resource and the lunches are a way to keep those connections between the school and our graduates going.”
This fall, the lunch will morph into something bigger: a walking tour of Highlandtown in Baltimore, followed by a picnic in nearby Patterson Park for alumni and URSP faculty. Not surprisingly, the idea derived from feedback during a lunch with alums, and a desire for more opportunities to network and connect. Eventually, Alex hopes these events—including the lunches—will become an ingrained tradition that becomes self-sustaining.
“Ideally, the lunches and other events will become so regular that they become automatic,” he says.
Lunch starts to wind down with discussions of what everyone is watching on Netflix, which ensures Alex is up to date on the latest binge-worthy material, a joy he’s relishing now that he is retired. At the top of the hour, the bill arrives, cash is collected, hugs and handshakes are exchanged. Everyone agrees it’s a terrific way to spend a lunch break.
“Through the alumni lunches, I’ve been able meet new people who have shared interests and experiences,” said Darcy Buckley (URSP, HISP ’13) who now works for Montgomery County’s Department of Transportation. “They’ve been a great way to reconnect with classmates.”