A home away from home for UBC alumni

GETTING IN TOUCH | Brian Sullivan chats with two Alumni UBC student ambassadors at the interactive wall in the Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre

The Wong-Trainor Welcome Centre

The Walter C. Koerner Family Terrace Lounge

The Robert H. Lee Family Boardroom

The Achievement Lounge

The Robert H. Lee Family Boardroom

UBC takes alumni engagement to the next level with a “home for life” for its grads, faculty and staff:  the one-of-a-kind, $18.5-million Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre

One by one, the graduates of 2016 climbed the steps to the stage of the Chan Centre, reached out to accept their degree from acting UBC president Martha Piper and smiled for a photo. It was a moment repeated at the Vancouver campus 6,634 times over nine days in May—and typical of the send-off most Canadian post-secondary institutions give their young grads.

But following the ceremony, UBC’s graduates were invited on a five-minute trek across campus that was not typical. After turning in their caps and gowns and milling about with family and friends in the rose garden, slowly they gravitated toward the striking glass-clad pavilion just inside the university’s entrance. They had watched the Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre rise from a construction zone over the years of their education, but now, as they raised their glasses of champagne in the ground-floor reception space, it would help them realize the moment they became a UBC alumnus.

The building serves as the official “front door” to the university—an information hub for visitors, or a place for grads to stop by and reminisce on the iPad-like interactive touchscreen wall, where they can look up their name and see photos of their era. The ground-floor café and lounge-like seating areas are popular destinations for students. Various spaces, designed to accommodate meetings, conferences, courses, trade shows, weddings and other receptions, have already proved much in demand; over the six days of graduation ceremonies, 9,000 people attended receptions at the centre.

Brian Sullivan, the former VP students who backed the project from its early planning stages in 1999 to completion in 2015 (after retiring as VP students in 2011, he remained in an advisory role for alumni engagement until June 2016), says the purpose-built facility is unique in Canada. Most alumni centres are shunted away in an athletics facility or in a separate house on the periphery of the university grounds—much like Cecil Green Park House, where Alumni UBC was based until April 2015. “The hope was to create a little jewel right in the centre of campus,” Sullivan says. “We don’t want students to wait until graduation when you get your little alumni booklet. We want them to understand from the get-go that they are part of something larger.”

The impetus for a centre began in 2004 with a formal joint agreement between the university and the UBC alumni association, which is a separate organization with its own board. A good rationale for the value of a building was how it could be used and supported by its grads: UBC is unusual in that more than half of its 316,000 alumni currently live in Metro Vancouver. But they weren’t getting the experience they wanted from their alma mater. In surveys, they reported that when they visited campus for a sporting event or a continuing studies course, they felt disoriented. “There wasn’t a kind of home away from home,” Sullivan says. “So this was a way of providing that.”

The Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre represents a shifting approach to university alumni relations. It used to be a one-way street: alumni were expected to donate money. “Now it goes both ways,” says Fred Lee, UBC’s director of alumni engagement. “What can we do for alumni, and what can alumni do for us. So there’s a breadth and depth strategy that we’ve been working on and it is showing some amazing results.”

First, the alumni proved they were committed to the relationship. Unlike other large building projects on campus, which generally receive funding from a federal or provincial government agency, the $18.5-million facility was entirely backed by private donors, corporations and alumni. It was named for one of the university’s most prominent grads and philanthropists, Bob Lee (BCom ’56)—a former chancellor who founded and chaired the UBC Properties Trust, through which UBC was able to build market housing on university land.

But the 41,700-square-foot centre, says Sullivan, needed to support itself through room rentals and events. “It is not primarily a vehicle to make money; it’s a program, and a way to build community,” he notes. “But we wanted to make sure it was sustainable.” One of the centre’s partners is the department of continuing studies, which offers courses in the classroom spaces. Entrepreneurship@UBC, an incubator and accelerator program, occupies the lower level (more on that on page 54). During the 2015 fiscal year there were 933 bookings of the various spaces, for university-related events and others. Net revenues from facility rentals are reinvested into Alumni UBC programming.

Now, along with the new five-storey $107-million AMS Nest (replacing the old Student Union Building) and the added density of student apartments under construction on University Boulevard, the alumni centre will form a centralized hub of campus activity. “Particularly at night when the lights are on and it’s full of people, it’s quite animated,” says Sullivan. “It’s really quite inspiring.”