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In five years, the Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) Alumni Association has grown from having 100 members to being the largest association of its kind in Latvia, comprising more than 1,100 alumni who are united by their diplomas from RSU, or as it was previously known the Medical Academy of Latvia, and the Riga Medical Institute.

‘If in the past joining the association made you an exception, we now want the reverse to be true,’

says Dins Šmits (pictured below), Chairman of the Board of the RSU Alumni Association. Under Šmits' leadership the alumni movement has experienced a rapid growth.

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As the board elections approached, we invited the Šmits to speak about the RSU Alumni Association’s successes so far and about its possible future plans, ranging from establishing a group for international alumni to working on research-based innovations.

The Alumni Association turns 13 this year. The last five years have been under your leadership. How would you sum up the association’s achievements?

When this team started its work in 2017, we had fewer than 100 members. It was unclear how we would be able to represent and involve all RSU alumni if membership was so low. Membership has increased more than 11 times over the years, and we are now just over 1,100 members. We are happy not only about the number itself, but also about the diversity of our members as they include graduates from 48 programmes from different generations.

When the current board took office, only around 1% of alumni joined the association. When I set 1,000 members as a target, it seemed unrealistic to colleagues at first, but we have now even surpassed this number! About a fifth of RSU graduates now join the association, which is still not enough in my opinion, but it is in any case already a significant increase. Under the leadership of Executive Director Artūrs Kaļva, our team has accomplished this through tedious work and daily persistence.

We have communicated internally with our members, we have improved communication with our alumni, and we organised a series of events to generate interest and strengthen former students’ links with the association.

I feel that our team has matured over time, which makes me very happy because I feel like a mentor to Artūrs and his work group. We regularly analyse our performance, looking not only at what goals we have achieved, but also at how we have grown as professionals, as individuals.

The board has played a key role on a strategic level. This term, besides Artūrs Kaļva, the medical section is represented by Professor Dace Gardovska and Professor Romans Lācis, the social science section by Ruta Siliņa and Juris Šleiers, and the industry side by Artūrs Veide, Business Development Manager for the Baltics at the Latvian branch of Johnson & Johnson AB.

10-gadu-jubileja.jpgRSU Alumni Association’s 10th anniversary. From the left: RSU Rector Aigars Pētersons and Chairman of the Board of the RSU Alumni Association Dins Šmits

How do you feel now with the AGM coming up? Do you feel satisfaction?

Of course, and at the same time I feel that we are off to a good start and could continue for another term if the members agree at the meeting.

We have done a lot – strengthened connections with benefactors, improved the scholarship fund, which enhances opportunities for promising students and talented lecturers. We have nurtured the intellectual and professional development of our alumni through a variety of events.

The Intelligence Club, for example, hosted Ģirts Rungainis who outlined different financial issues, Professor Andris Sprūds who spoke about foreign policy, Juris Žagars who covered culture and entrepreneurship, and artist Aivars Vilipsons who spoke about creativity. NATO Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy Baiba Braže, the most highly regarded diplomat in the history of independent Latvia, gave a presentation on the representation of Latvia’s interests from a geopolitical perspective.

We have also worked to make students’ feel more confident to take their first steps in research and cooperated with the RSU Technology Transfer Office and our B-Space Business Incubator to provide platforms for innovation where students and people from the industry, experts in different fields, can meet and network. Our network is wide, and we can bring together a lot of valuable professionals. I would say that “networking” is the keyword of our organisation.

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Speaking of cooperation, what is it like between the alumni associations of the big universities?

Although we are the third largest higher education institution in Latvia, we have more members than both the University of Latvia (UL) and Riga Technical University (RTU). We have created a public benefit organisation Alumni LV together with the UL Alumni Club and the RTU Alumni Association. There are many areas where we need to bet united, like when lobbying in the interests of the universities we represent.

Over the years, we have been vigilant about our university’s interests on a national level – be it bachelor studies for police officers, residency regulations, sensitive data issues, or others.

It is as a result of our work that alumni organisations are included in the amended Law on Higher Education Institutions – we are listed as a mandatory part of higher education institutions’ councils.

What are the main objectives for the next five years?

The new board will have a say there, but I think it would be valuable to focus on integrating international graduates into the RSU Alumni Association. The numbers will probably not be large at first, however.

Serious emphasis should be placed on developing innovation platforms and make use of the synergy that comes from a student meeting a researcher, or a practitioner in the field. We need to continue fostering research through events, projects, and grants.

The RSU Vice-Rector for Science Agrita Kiopa and her team are doing a great job in this area, and we participate in the more student-oriented part of the process. To go even further, we can do more by supporting international research cooperations.

rsu06.10.2021-119.jpgLast year, scholarship recipients were honoured in the newly opened Boris Teterev Auditorium at the RSU Medical Education Technology Centre thanks to the cooperation between the University, the RSU Alumni Association and the Boris and Inara Teterev Foundation

Is there an international standard to aspire to when it comes to alumni associations?

Structurally, the Anglo-Saxon approach to alumni organisations is not directly applicable in Europe. In the US or UK the structures of large universities are largely dominated by religious organisations or trusts as founders, which are partly owned by alumni organisations and where the tax framework encourages investment in education.

The basic idea of alumni is similar around the world – their primary interest is for their alma mater to be respected and held in high regard. Although not the only factor, the university from which you graduate is an important factor in the labour market. A university's interests are, in turn, based on support, both financial and in the form of contacts and networking. Almost every issue requires networking.

That is the main function of alumni associations – to create this network where graduates can both give and receive.

In Latvia, alumni associations as such could be more influential and have a stronger voice. There’s room for growth!