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The Power of Connection: Knauss Fellow and Alumni Engagement During a Pandemic and Beyond

By: Emily Y. Horton,
Knauss Fellow,
Partnership Specialist,
NOAA’s National Sea Grant Office (NSGO)


Social connection. It’s part of what makes us human and, as COVID-19 starkly reminds us, it’s fundamental to our wellbeing. As fellow Spencer Showalter explains, “one of the major benefits of being a Knauss Fellow is getting to become a part of the Knauss alumni community, and leveraging that network is much more difficult without being able to connect with alumni directly.” So how does the 2020 cohort of Knauss Fellows network when required to “physically distance” at home? In this blog post, I share about virtual alumni-engagement initiatives our cohort is leading and discuss how in my fellowship as a Partnership Specialist for Sea Grant, I will help lay the groundwork for a fellows network.


Knauss Fellow-Alumni (Virtual) Mentorship 


As 2020 Knauss Fellow Zuzy Abdala explained in her April blog post, fellows are “Conquering the Quarantine” by finding creative ways to socially connect while physically distancing. Networking is an important dimension to our fellowship year, one that is now complicated by teleworking and social distancing measures. Wishing to provide a mechanism for fellows to easily seek out one-on-one virtual mentoring, Zuzy launched a Knauss Alumni Mentoring Match-Up pilot program. As she explains, “Knauss alumni are experts at reaching out, connecting, and dedicating time to advancing the careers of other Knauss Fellows and Alumni. Because of this, who better to come to in a time when fellows are finding it especially challenging to build their career networks?” 


The Mentoring Match-Up allowed alumni and fellows to see the other’s areas of expertise and interests for strategic pairing. The pilot program is being received with much enthusiasm and many fellows, myself included, are already benefiting. “Since I had the freedom to be very intentional with which Alumni to reach out to from the very detailed expertise descriptions, I was able to engage with someone whose work I was interested in, even though it was rather niche. This Alumni mentoring match-up has made networking a bit more methodical versus the typical networking in the wild.”, said Zuzy. Through two virtual mentorship chats, I gained key insights on issues of professional interest, including domestic-international partnerships, collaborating with local and Indigenous communities and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in marine conservation. Building upon the success of the initial Mentorship Match-up sign up, we decided to expand that effort by creating a Google Form.


Fellows and Alumni Networking Google Form and Engagement Opportunities


Knauss Alumni can sign up for mentoring and other engagement opportunities by completing this Google form. The form asks alumni a variety of questions, such as their current position and interest in engagement opportunities, including:

  • Mentorship
  • Digital/virtual events
  • Informational interviews with current fellows
  • Alumni Profile Interviews (to publish on NSGO website) 


By completing the form alumni will help generate a sustainable informational resource for current and future cohorts to connect with our impressive Knauss Alumni during their fellowship. 

The alumni responses to the Google form have been impressive thus far! As of April 27, 2020, we have received 173 responses from alumni (fellows from years 1979 – 2019) representing 32 Sea Grant programs. Combined, Virginia (9.9%), Maryland (9.3%) and  North Carolina (8.7%)  Sea Grant represent 27.9% of respondents’ program affiliations. We have also received many useful comments from alumni to guide our thinking moving forward. One alumni writes: “Can’t wait to re-engage with the Knauss group!” Another says, “I’m interested in more support and community-building for alumni.” This latter comment about alumni community-building is a topic the National Sea Grant Office is very interested in. So much so, that they specifically requested a fellow for their office to explore this further.


Looking to the Future: Scoping Fellows Network Possibilities and Partnerships


As a Partnership Specialist, my time is spread between assisting NSGO Deputy Director Nikola Garber with partnerships, providing support to Sea Grant and, most importantly, laying the groundwork for a fellows network. As my mentor Garber explains: “Many alumni are interested in continuing to connect after their fellowship ends not only in the D.C. region but also across the country… from professional society meetings to partnering on topics of interest both professionally and personally. Thus, the NSGO recruited Emily to scope what a fellows network could be by talking with those interested in such an opportunity (alumni of both National and State fellowships, Sea Grant Programs, hosts, etc.).”


As I talk to alumni, Sea Grant affiliates and NSGO staff, it is evident that there is immense enthusiasm in building a fellows network. There are many visions and ideas for what that might look like. I feel a great responsibility to move forward mindfully, inclusively and strategically in waters I am still learning to navigate. I’m also balancing the start of my fellowship with the closure of my Ph.D. program, as I finish my last dissertation chapter and prepare for a June defense (within the context of a pandemic). Thus, this period is inviting me to deepen resiliency and grow both personally and professionally.


Luckily, this is not a “sola” job and I am so grateful to have the feedback and support from alumni, NSGO, the Sea Grant network and others to help guide me as I move forward with my assignment. Galen Kaufman, a 2010 Knauss Alumni, has been brainstorming on a fellows network for some time and was one of the first alumni I consulted for feedback. As he shared: “With more than 1,300 fellows over 41 years, one of the most outstanding things about the Knauss Fellowship is the many incredible, talented and accomplished people who have participated in it.  The establishment of a fellows network will not only highlight the knowledge and value of our diverse network but also facilitate meaningful connections that support the personal and professional development of current and former fellows.” 


These meaningful connections can also give rise to partnerships. I am currently collaborating with 2020 fellows and alumni, within NOAA and across agencies, to strengthen NSGO’s partnerships portfolio, which includes a burgeoning partnership between NSGO and the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Numeric Nutrient Criteria Program.

Over the next year, I look forward to collaborating with others to contribute to something bigger than any individual, which I hope, through the power of connection, will serve many people for years to come.


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