Your magazine shouldn’t make alumni feel bad

Can we talk about Facebook frenemies for a second?

Let me tell you about mine.

My Facebook frenemy is an old high school friend, and her is life is AMAZING. Her husband is a big-deal doctor. They live on the shores of a beautiful lake in a home that has been featured in local design magazines. She has four perfect kids. And based on the occasional swimsuit shots she posts from her exotic beach vacations, you know what else she has? Abs. ABS! Sheesh.

Oh, and let me show an image of the kind of cakes she makes. For fun. (I am not joking about this.)

erin peterson alumni magazines unicorn cake

I probably should be happy to be friends with someone who is so accomplished! But she makes me feel terrible about myself.

This is not surprising. This is science.

According to one report, “[s]crolling through happy status updates, exciting vacation photos, and beautiful family moments led participants to compare their lives [unfavorably] with those of their Facebook friends.

Ugh. Thanks, Facebook.

This blog post is not about my Facebook hangups

You know what else makes a lot of people feel terrible about themselves?

Alumni magazines.

Alumni magazines often fill their pages with countless profiles of what I like to call “superhero alumni.” These amazing men and women have breakthrough discoveries, build world-changing companies, and improve the lives of vulnerable people around the planet.

They’re stories that are designed to make us feel proud of our alma maters.

Too often, they just make us feel bad about ourselves.

It’s the Facebook principle in action.

You don’t have to take my word for it. One blogger called the misery she felt every time she got her school’s publication Alumni Magazine Syndrome.

I’m sure I don’t have to say it, but I will: Your alumni magazine should not make people feel terrible about themselves.

There’s no one who knows that better than I do. I work on these stories day in and day out. I’m constantly fighting my own worst impulses to turn the people I’m profiling into superheroes. The alumni I write about are amazing, it’s true. But they’re also human.

Why too many superhero alumni stories can do real damage to your institution

The problem with these superhero alumni stories is not that they’re actually kind of boring. It’s not that they’re “not real.” (Though both of these things are often true.)

It’s that if you run too many of them, you run the risk of alienating the very alumni you want to reach. The ones who might volunteer at an alumni event, or serve as a mentor, or give a whole bunch of money to support a new program.

You run the risk of spending tens — even hundreds — of thousands of dollars to put together a publication that alumni send to the recycling bin before they even crack the cover.

This shouldn’t happen! You work hard on your magazine. And your alumni deserve better.

On telling more human stories

I have another friend who is nothing like my perfect high school pal.

When I saw her at a party a last year, we found ourselves talking about the bathtime routines of our children. I told her that I dreaded the routine with my twin five-year-olds — 45 minutes of fighting when I was at my most exhausted, just to get them clean! She smiled sympathetically, then glanced over at her 10-year-old son. “I don’t think he’s let water touch his hair in two weeks,” she told me.

Earlier this year, with her fingers laced around a cup of coffee, she confided to me that she wasn’t so sure about the decision she’d made to pursue a Ph.D. She’d been a rock star in her program, but now that she was wrapping up her dissertation, she realized that great positions in her field were mostly outside of the Twin Cities, where she lives. She didn’t know if her family could survive being uprooted.

The thing I love about this friend is not that she’s not amazing — she is! She’s getting a Ph.D. and she has a super smart and kind son. But she is also funny and vulnerable and deeply honest. She acknowledges that there are trade-offs that come with her very real accomplishments.

And these things — humor, honesty, and vulnerability — are often missing in alumni magazine stories.

Start with a story structure designed for humanity and honesty

It’s not always easy to tell human stories in an alumni magazine.

But one way to start is by structuring stories around inflection points — the hard moments when we have to make decisions, address consequences, or accept something difficult about ourselves.

Here’s what I mean: Some time ago, I did a story for Macalester called The Thing That Changed My Mind. I asked several alumni, faculty, and administrators about a time they went into a situation believing one thing and left believing another.

They shared remarkably frank stories about the changes in their views on challenging topics — religion and race, for example. They shared difficult stories about the realizations they had about their own limitations.

We all have these moments, but they’re really tough to admit to. They force us to acknowledge that we were wrong about something.

Yet people felt safe telling these stories because they knew that it was the *point* of the story. They knew that others would be sharing their own moments of change and growth, even if it didn’t paint their previous selves in an entirely flattering light.

These stories are human. They’re real. And that’s important.

Here’s another example called Moments of Transformation. Members of the Case Western Reserve University community shared the experiences in their own lives that changed them forever.

In each of these stories, the point is not that the people being interviewed are wildly successful. (Though they sometimes are.) It’s that they’re reflecting on the things that have made them who they are, both for good and for bad.

These aren’t stories about superheroes. They’re stories about humans.

Why it’s worth finding ways to tell these stories

I’m still working on finding ways to tell alumni magazine stories with more honesty and heart. But I’m deeply committed to this work, because the benefits are enormous.

Stories like these make your readers trust the magazine.

Stories like these make your readers trust your institution.

But most important, stories like these are what a college experience — the very reason your alumni are getting your magazine — is all about.

College is a place where we learn the skills that will benefit us in our careers, of course. But college is also about helping us develop as human beings. It’s where we took risks. It’s where we failed and succeeded. It’s where we learned difficult truths about the world and ourselves.

College is a place where we learned, in many ways, how to be human.

Not all of us can relate to stories of enormously successful alums making millions and changing the world. But we can all relate to the real stories of fumbling through our lives, trying our best, and learning from our mistakes.

Those are the stories that will keep your alumni reading.