Oversea Trips for College Alumnus
Didi Kirtley loves to travel. She works for an art-house movie theater in Pleasantville, N.Y., and usually travels independently—especially if she’s going to a country where English is widely spoken or Westerners are warmly welcomed. But last year, a flyer from her alma mater, Rollins College, in Winter Park, Fla., showed up in her mailbox advertising a college-sponsored trip to Turkey with a professor of both tourism and Islam. “I’d seen trips advertised in the alumni magazine before,” says Kirtley, “and I never gave them a thought.” But this time, the trip piqued her interest because of the unusual locale and the small group size—only 12 people. Not only did Kirtley go on the trip, but she loved it so much that, as soon as Rollins’ next trip was announced, she signed up for it: a 17-day excursion to Egypt and Jordan in October.
You may think of your alma mater as a place only for fond memories and fun reunions. But a university-sponsored trip for alumni offers a number of benefits for both the participants and the institution. For starters, your fellow travelers share history with you. On one of Bob Davidson’s dozen or so trips with Dartmouth, a group wound up singing the college’s old fight song, “Men of Dartmouth.” (The school went co-ed in 1972, so that particular ditty has fallen by the wayside.) Richardson, a retired senior executive with the U.S. Department of Education who lives in Fall Church, Va., has also made lasting friendships on his school-sponsored trips. Case in point: A gentleman he met during a Dartmouth jaunt to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan wound up traveling with him to Syria the following year.
Taking these trips also enables you to reconnect with the college professors who accompany you and the alumni you meet abroad, thanks to the custom-designed itineraries. Harriet Friedlander, the president of Academic Arrangements Abroad, in New York City, recently organized a trip to Berlin for Harvard alumni. She called it “Insiders’ Berlin,” and she wasn’t kidding. In addition to bringing along a Harvard faculty member who’d written books on postwar Germany, she arranged for tripgoers to meet with Harvard alums living in Berlin, including two who work as foreign ambassadors. One gave a private briefing at the city’s American embassy; another hosted a lunch at his home. “It sold out immediately,” says Friedlander, whose company also arranges alumni trips for Amherst, Brown, Stanford, Vassar and Wellesley, “because it offered people a really privileged view of Germany.”
Speaking of privileged, these trips do get quite pricey. Friedlander’s Berlin trip cost $5,595 for eight days, not including airfare, and the trip to Egypt that Kirtley booked for the fall will set her back $4,195. But Friedlander says that people who take these kinds of trips don’t mind the big price tags, because “they’re going to have incredible, meaningful, life-changing experiences. And they are very appreciative of that.”
One of the life-changing aspects of these trips is the gateway they provide to experiences that solo travelers might not be able to access. James Berkeley, president of Destinations and Adventures, a Los Angeles company specializing in custom-designed travel programs for schools ranging from Yale to the Big 10, offers one example: On a recent trip to Egypt that he organized for Vanderbilt University alumni, Berkeley arranged for the group to visit the Tomb of Nefertari (not Nefertiti). “The tomb has been closed to the public, but it will open for a fee of about $6,000,” says Berkeley. It’s understandable why an individual tourist may not want to pay that kind of money. “But with a group, that fee is very doable.”
In addition to unusual experiences, the quality of the professor travel guides sets these excursions apart from typical tours: for example, the emeritus professor of theater at Occidental College in Pasadena, Calif., who accompanies the school’s biannual backstage Broadway tour. In addition to his exceptional knowledge of New York theater, he has connections with Occidental alumni who are currently working on Broadway. The trip includes face time with the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons and a costume designer for Broadway productions, both alums of the school. “The last time I went on the trip,” says Jim Jacobs, the director of alumni relations for Occidental, “I put on one of the outfits from The Lion King.” Now that’s something most travelers can’t say.
Many alumni may hesitate to take a trip with their alma mater for fear that they will be badgered to donate to the school. Nothing could be further from the truth. “We do not do any fundraising on our trips,” says Carrie Fediuk, the educational travel coordinator at the alumni association of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. The same goes for Dartmouth: “We use the term ‘friendraising,’” says Roberta Moore, the school’s director of alumni continuing education and travel. “We are just trying to keep people connected [to Dartmouth].” That said, one of the extra benefits for the host school is that the people who travel with their former college or university do feel more connected, so many of them decide to donate anyway.
LEAH INGRAM, author of Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less (Adams Media, 2010) dreams of one day taking an alumni trip to France with NYU to make up for the junior year abroad she never got to attend.