Speaking Out and Standing in Relation with Alumni Engagement: Orlea Miller
What happens when you are offered an alumni relations job at a school that is beloved by generations of graduates just after it decides to change its name? “You make sure to open up lines of communication,” said Orlea Miller, a 2019 William Davidson School MA graduate with a concentration in educational leadership.
Miller joined The Leffell School (formerly Solomon Schechter School of Westchester) as Community Engagement and Education associate in July 2019. “I knew I would have a lot of listening—and explaining—to do,” said Miller. She knew from the interview process and through friends who had attended the school that alumni cared deeply about the school. Helping alumni to understand the change in the school’s identity and to stay connected—or become involved for the first time—would be top on her to-do list.
“I consider myself a relationship-based educator,” said Miller. “I bring alumni into the life of the school. I talk to people about their Jewish journeys.” Miller recalled how in her William Davidson School class on social emotional development she learned the importance of the types of questions educators ask.
Some of the initiatives Miller has launched include a mentoring program that pairs younger alumni with more established graduates, a job board, and an innovative directory of where recent graduates are attending college, an incredibly helpful tool for juniors and seniors engaged in the college application and decision-making process.
With so many alumni—over 2000 both from when the school ended at 8th grade and from the past twenty years since it has included a high school—Miller spends a great deal of time learning what connects alumni to Leffell—even if it was called something else when they attended. As the school has changed and alumni themselves have grown up, Miller is a kind of human bridge. “With the name change and shift from being a Schechter school to a more pluralistic model, graduates are curious about what the change means and how they fit in,” said Miller.
The position that Miller holds is unusual in Jewish day schools. While she technically sits in the Office of Institutional Advancement, fundraising is not part of her portfolio. “Our alumni care about the school and have always felt pretty connected. Something happened while they were here that made them feel a kind of ownership of the school.” A K–8 day school graduate herself, Miller recognizes that this feeling of connection is special. Her position enables graduates to remain actively engaged with the school.
Because Leffell considers its alumni such an important part of its community, graduates are included in frequent communication. Last spring, like many institutions, the school sent out a message in response to the George Floyd murder and subsequent Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Miller found her inbox filling with responses from alumni.
Some graduates wrote to express appreciation for the message, some took issue with it. A petition was created, and nearly 300 alumni signed on to share their concern, offering specific suggestions for how the school could work towards combating racism.
“What happened reveals just how much our alumni care about what happens at Leffell and just how much they feel connected to the school,” said Miller. “I believe that having been educated with the values of the school, our alumni were eager to engage with school leaders.”
Alumni were invited to a Town Hall style dialogue regarding the senseless murder of George Floyd and the nationwide outrage against racism and police brutality that has ensued. A week later, about 100 alumni participated in a respectful conversation that included listening and learning from each other, sharing information about how Leffell currently addressed these subjects with students, and thinking together about ways the school could play a stronger role in enacting the values it espouses.
Miller acknowledges that the weeks surrounding the message and the alumni petition were among her most challenging, especially against the backdrop of COVID. Subsequent to the June Town Hall, alumni have been invited to livestreamed high school programs such as one on “Race in America: Personal Stories and Perspectives” with Bishop Wilbert Preston and college student Chiamaka Odenigbo as well as a Yom Iyun for grades 8–12 on “Race, Identity, and Responsibility” with Dr. Terence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine, and George and Galit Price, a Jewish interracial couple who have worked at Leffell.
Miller’s self-perception as an educator was only deepened through this experience. “When our alumni spoke out about what they expected from and of Leffell, they stood in deep relation with the school,” said Miller. “My responsibility is to the alumni, to provide them the means to stay connected.” Just as the school customizes its anti-racism education to the developmental level appropriate to each grade or age, so has Miller included alumni in the broader educational process.
“When Leffell embraced its new name, the school knew that the change would permeate all segments of our community,” said Miller. “The same could be said about multi-cultural education and greater societal changes and movements.” Keeping lines of communication open, engaging with individuals in their personal education journey in a pluralistic setting—these are lessons she learned and practiced at Davidson, whether in her practicum in Jewish educational leadership or in midrash classes.
“Educators are trained to think, ask questions, and respond based on who the people are in the room,” said Miller. “I approach my work trying to understand where people are coming from and then determining how I can help build the community of learners.”
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