Joining the Alumni Association should be a matter of honour for every RSU graduate
In February 2019, the Alumni Association (AA) of Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) will celebrate its 10th anniversary. The Association was established with an objective to promote the lifelong learning of alumni and involve them in university life, and over the years the Association has made inroads in strengthening the alumni culture at RSU. Dins Šmits, Chairperson of the AA Board, is convinced that more extensive involvement of alumni in RSU projects and management of the University will bring benefits to both sides; therefore, the task of the Association is to create a platform for such synergy.
Dins Šmits taking part in the opening ceremony of the AA and Student Union joint project "Researchers' academy" in October 2018
Compared to Western European countries, the tradition of establishing alumni societies is very new in Latvia. What was your own motivation to join the newly-established RSU Alumni Association 10 years ago?
I am one of the founders of the RSU Alumni Association. Back then, while working as a company manager, I had established an organisation, which managed its basic tasks very well, and I became increasingly aware, that my desire and also duty is community activism. This has also been demonstrated in other practical ways, for example, by providing support to the foundation “Iespējamā misija” (“Mission Possible”) and the organisation “Fund for Support of Medical Education and Scientific Research”. To a great extent, I can be grateful for my professional success to the education acquired at RSU; therefore, it was logical that I became one of the founders and Board Members of the AA.
For any organisation, the chance to celebrate its 10 year anniversary serves as evidence to its viability and a certain level of maturity – various projects have been implemented and different management models tested. How would you describe the Association today – what are the issues listed on its agenda?
In the summer of 2018, the new Association Board was approved – we have put in a lot of effort over the past months to make our work more structured and set specific indicators to be achieved. We have had many discussions on what we want to achieve and how to do it. Slightly rephrasing the quote by former United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon: “Keep your head in the clouds, but your feet on the ground” I must say that currently we are not only with our head in the clouds, but also with our feet on the ground.
Our main task in this activity period was and still remains the involvement of alumni, which we measure based on two criteria: total number of members and number of active members. Currently, this proportion is approaching 300 members, of whom 50 members are actively engaged in AA activities.
Using a quantitative measurement, I hope that the number of Association members will reach one thousand in the course of this year, so looking ahead to the next five years, this number should reach several thousand.
The daily tasks of the Association are completed by a team of three people: executive director Artūrs Kaļva, and two assistants – Katrīna Narbute and Elizabete Ribalkina. I am particularly pleased about those often invisible, but important things that we have managed to put in order over these months to streamline the administrative duties of the Association.
What is the most challenging thing when working with alumni?
Considering that we admit alumni of Rīga Medical Institute (RMI), the Medical Academy of Latvia (MAL), and RSU as members of the Association, the major challenge is to find more efficient ways to address different target audiences in terms of age and professional field. When working with current students, we formulate it in such a way that joining the Association becomes an integral step following RSU graduation.
This year we have significantly eased the application process – now application to become a member of the Association is made online. We have also cancelled the member's fee. We realised that for us, active involvement of each member in projects of the Association or their initiation is much more important. Streamlining of administrative issues enabled us to pay more attention on how we address the alumni.
A new direction which we want to develop in 2019 is addressing alumni who reside abroad – those Latvian alumni, who currently work elsewhere in the world, and international alumni who have returned to their country of residence after their degree has been awarded. One opportunity for cooperation that we are helping to implement, is encouraging alumni to become guest lecturers at RSU – by providing information to interested persons abroad on the process of becoming a guest lecturer. This will surely enrich the study content and allow alumni to develop professionally. This summer, during the IV World Congress of Latvian Scientists I met Latvian doctors who are working in the USA – Board Members of the Latvian Medical and Dental Association (LMDA) Uģis Gruntmanis and Gundars Katlaps. We discussed the possibilities of informing doctors who reside abroad, who have graduated RMI, MAL or RSU.
What projects is the Association currently involved in?
The objective of the project “Researchers' Academy”, which we organise in cooperation with the RSU Student Union, is to promote student interest in research and science. So far, interest in research during studies was mainly shown by students of the Faculty of Medicine, because by doing so they collected points for their residency studies. Our goal is to rouse interest in all students, helping them understand what they should start with, and providing practical information. Part of this project is to create an online database, where RSU structural units will publish current projects that students can be involved in. For several years now the Association has helped to attract funding for the RSU International Student Conference. All these activities, as well as administration of the scholarship fund, have helped to promote awareness of the Alumni Association among prospective members.
To promote a connection with alumni of the social sciences study programmes, on 19 October 2018, we were involved in organising the alumni evening “Kopsavilkums”, which was highly appreciated by lecturers and alumni. I was positively surprised and excited by this event.
Dins Šmits taking part in the RSU social sciences graduate reunion "Kopsavilkums" on 19 October 2018
Another important direction is attracting sponsors and donation administration. The most notable of these projects is attracting donations for the RSU Anatomy Museum. We are actively involved in attracting industrial sponsors. Since November, an additional activity has been the cooperation with the RSU Research Board, involvement in the attraction of co-funding within the European Union project “Innovation Grants for Students”. An important item that still remains on the agenda of the Association is representing RSU interests in institutions with decision-making powers.
What is your vision for the next 10 years of the Association?
In qualitative terms, my goal as Chairperson of the Association would be to ensure that the culture of RSU students and alumni changes in such a way that becoming a member of the AA is self-evident, both rationally and emotionally. To achieve this, significant time and effort needs to be put in by the Board.
I am convinced that in essence, the alumni are those who are most interested in the University’s success. In the labour market, we – the alumni – to a large extent, are rated by the university that awarded the degree, and the employer looks at the current reputation of our alma mater not when the student graduated. Alumni are interested in their university having an excellent reputation! Therefore, we will continue to actively work on creating various opportunities for alumni to initiate and be involved in projects aimed at the growth of RSU.
Striving for constant improvement is inherent in the alumni of RSU, and the objective of the Alumni Association is to help alumni to be involved in lifelong education, using RSU resources in particular, and the post-graduate education opportunities provided. I believe, that in due course, an alumni culture will also become more popular in Latvia and alumni will also participate in university life at a formal level, for example, being represented in various decision-making institutions. Therefore, I believe, that in the following years the role of the Association in RSU development will only increase.