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Badgering: Sarah Schutt

Paula Bonner MS’78 announced in February 2017 that she would be stepping down, and in May 2017, she named her successor: Sarah Schutt, who took the reigns of WAA on July 1 as its chief alumni officer and executive director.

Chelsea Rademacher ’13
April 10, 2018
Sarah Schutt

How long have you been with WAA, and what areas have you worked in?

I have been with WAA since August of 2001. Paula hired me – in a partnership arrangement with the Division of Continuing Studies – to create and oversee the brand-new Alumni Lifelong Learning program. She had a vision for increasing the variety of ways that alumni could engage with UW, focusing on the one thing all alumni have in common – their degree! Prior to that the focus had been largely athletic and social connections. I had the incredible opportunity to build a program from the ground up, using the Wisconsin Idea as our foundation and finding creative ways to connect alumni to the academic traditions of the university.

Since then, I’ve grown and expanded my role with engagement programs, gradually taking on more areas and supervising more people. When we had our WAA reorganization in 2012, I became a Managing Director of Alumni Engagement and Experiences – covering a significant portion of the engagement program areas. Upon merger in 2014, I became an Associate VP of Alumni Relations and Engagement, and then a Vice President. Responsibility for our engagement model, tracking, data, evaluations and the “back end” of engagement came onto my plate. I also took on two more “operational” parts of the organization, the Events and Registration areas. All of this has served to broaden my knowledge base and perspective as we embark on WFAA 2.0.

My career on campus actually began in 1994 when I came to work as an Associate Residence Life Coordinator in Witte Hall. I spent three wonderful years in Housing at UW and that was my initiation to campus life and campus culture. I fell in love with it! Now that I’m in my new leadership role, I realize how much my background in student life has galvanized my beliefs alumni relations, particularly the importance of community, belonging and continual learning.

What is one of the most rewarding parts about coming to work every day?

I’m continually in awe of the significant impact that the university is having on creating a positive world – through research, teaching, outreach, aeally smart, dedicated faculty and staff AND through amazing contributions of our 400,000-plus alumni. Every day there is a new reason to be proud of UW. I feel like I’m constantly learning (which I love!) and have so many opportunities to meet and visit with incredible people who have such a passion for and commitment to this institution. It’s affirming and energizing. I don’t know that many people get to experience that feeling in their daily work.

What makes the University of Wisconsin — Madison special?

It sounds cliché to say “The Wisconsin Idea” but I believe that is absolutely true. There is an ethos that’s part of the fabric of this place that we are part of something larger than ourselves and that we have a responsibility to society and our fellow humans to leave a legacy and leave the world better. That is the overarching theme in Alumni Park and I’m so grateful that we have a physical space to express not only alumni accomplishments but that drive to contribute in some way to the human condition.

UW is also special because of the student experience, I believe. Time after time, alumni have acknowledged that they received a tremendous education at UW but it was what they learned about themselves, and the experiences, people and ideas they were exposed to, that had the most significant impact on their lives and who they became.

I’ve worked at five different institutions of higher education and I can absolutely confirm that UW is special. What an incredible combination: outstanding academics; a beautiful campus setting; tradition of strong student leadership, governance and initiative; so many opportunities for students to be involved outside the classroom; a sense of irreverence and appreciation for humor and irony (that is unique to UW, I believe); intelligence and confidence coupled with humility and gratefulness for the experience. Great athletics, long-standing traditions and the network of Badgers all wanting the best for the university and the students. We have the whole package. As I said before, so many reasons to be proud.

Do you remember the first time you were on the UW campus? What were your first impressions?

I grew up in Iowa and there was (and is) no tuition reciprocity, so, financially, UW wasn’t an option for me to attend. My first visit to Madison and the UW campus was in the late 1980’s with my husband (then-boyfriend), who brought me to share his favorite city with me. Don had a wonderful undergraduate experience here and was full of fun stories of antics (…maybe some mischief…) in the old Ogg Hall, buildings like Science Hall, and haunts up and down State Street. It was nice to see some of these places first-hand and picture the energy and creativity that young adults have.

My first impression was the absolute beauty of the campus, the view from Observatory Hill over Lake Mendota and the Terrace. I remember thinking, “it’s a good thing I didn’t come to school here – it would be like living in a park; I’d never get anything done!” I was blown away by Camp Randall and how EVERYONE knew all the songs and traditions. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced and it stuck! Little did I know I’d come to work at UW just a few years later.

What is one of your favorite Badger traditions?

Jump Around!

Why do you think WAA — and alumni associations across the country — are important?

Being an alumnus or alumna of an institution is a lifetime relationship. Our role in alumni relations is to keep the door open and the porch light on for alumni so they always feel a sense of belonging and connection to their alma mater. That’s important to alumni, and it’s extremely important to universities to nurture and sustain a relationship with their alumni network. Paula Bonner always said, “alumni are the lifeblood of the institution” and she’s so right! Alumni are our greatest ambassadors, telling the university story, encouraging new generations of students to attend, applying their education and their values to better the world, and of course, supporting the university through their volunteer, advocacy and giving activity. The job of faculty and staff of a university is to focus on the students and their experience and education during their time on campus, which is temporary. The job of the alumni association is to focus on the alumni experience and their permanent, lifetime relationship with the university. That lasts a lot longer.

What’s been one of the most fun WAA events you attended this past year?

The Homecoming Block Party was extremely memorable. Maybe because it was the first year that I was in the WAA leadership role. Or maybe it’s because it was 73 degrees in October. Regardless, our inaugural Block Party, held in our brand-new Alumni Park was a significant moment. We had several thousand alumni, friends and families gathered on the lakefront on a gorgeous fall evening, just enjoying themselves and reveling in being a Badger. The energy, emotion and positive feeling of shared experience was palpable and represented the essence of Badger identity and spirit. When the fireworks went off, I looked left and right and saw thousands of people enjoying that moment together, it was the epitome of why I love my job.

What are some of the things you’re most looking forward to in your new role?

Getting out and meeting and speaking with alumni around the U.S. (and hopefully international alumni over the next couple of years). I’ve really enjoyed my visits to date with chapter leaders and alumni volunteers in eight different cities, and will continue this spring with several Founders Day events and chapter board meetings. It’s so important to hear directly from our stakeholders about their thoughts and feelings about UW and what we can be doing at WAA to be present, add value and tell the university story. It’s also great fun getting to know folks who are universally smart, fun and passionate about the university!

Where do you see WAA in five years?

I’m extremely fortunate for the strong foundation and incredible legacy that Paula left after more than two decades at WAA. Her vision for what an alumni association could and should be the university and for the whole alumni body established WAA as a leader within our profession. My hope for WAA over the next five years is to continue that momentum to keep us innovating in how we add value to the lives of alumni and to the university. I want WAA to be seen as a vital partner to campus in engaging our alumni and inspiring their support for UW. I also want to keep getting better at all the things we already do well to engage alumni and friends. We have a really terrific set programs and activities (Chapters, WAA Membership, Travel, Grandparents University, Class Reunion, Athletic programs, etc.) that will achieve even broader reach and stronger impact with feedback from alumni and thoughtful planning by staff.

Any big plans or ideas for WAA that you can reveal to our readers?

Things on the immediate horizon include growing and expanding how we utilize our beautiful Alumni Park and One Alumni Place, both with engagement opportunities we design and by opening those spaces up for use by groups. We’re looking to introduce the culture of alumnihood with students while they are still on campus through some new programming and collaboration. We’re revitalizing alumni affinity groups and building relationships with alumni populations whom we haven’t been in touch, and we’re working to deliver more UW content, connections and experiences digitally. Finally, alumni in the state of Wisconsin will see an integrated and comprehensive engagement and communication effort coming this summer. It’s a very exciting time and I am delighted to be part of it!

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