By Aleksandra Sidorova
Homecoming, a tradition spanning over half a century, was hosted in-person for the first time in three years last weekend.
Kerry Chapin-Lavigne and Paul Leduc, the two people working in the Alumni Relations office, faced not only the responsibility of continuing the Homecoming tradition, but also the challenge of educating a generation of students who, due to COVID-19, do not know what a college Homecoming is.
Some feedback announced at the Student Association Executive Council Meeting Oct. 17 said students felt that Homecoming weekend “wasn’t very inclusive” and “focused on alumni.”
“The definition is right in the name — coming home,” Associate Director of Alumni Relations Leduc said. “It’s a time when our community gathers to celebrate Plattsburgh but also welcome back alumni and friends and also people that haven’t been back in awhile.”
“Simply put, everybody is welcome, but the center focus is welcoming our alumni back to campus,” Chapin-Lavigne added.
Chapin-Lavigne said the office of Alumni Relations succeeded in its goal to educate SUNY Plattsburgh students, the majority of whom joined during the pandemic, on Homecoming.
“This is in fact probably the first Homecoming for the majority of our students that they’ve experienced,” Chapin-Lavigne said. “It’s not common that they have questions, and it’s wonderful that they recognize that we’ve had Homecoming, because to me, we’re making progress on the fact that it exists and that something different is happening on campus. They should know that, they should want to be a part of it, so I love the fact that it’s being talked about at the Student Association because if it’s not, it means they didn’t even know it happened.”
Some students have been referring to Homecoming as “alumni weekend,” which, according to Chapin-Lavigne, can help students better understand the purpose of the event.
“It used to be called alumni weekend,” Leduc said. “I think we’ll probably continue hearing people call it alumni weekend, but I don’t think we brand it that way, and we never have.”
“We don’t,” Chapin-Lavigne confirmed, “because we love the all-inclusive Homecoming word.”
Leduc noted that with the criticism the office received of Homecoming being too alumni-centered, “we’re actually the ones that don’t call it alumni weekend.”
SA Coordinator of Activities Marileana Rodriguez said calling Homecoming “alumni weekend” could help clear confusion among students.
“I just think that if it’s going to be so alumni-based, it should be called alumni weekend, because even though Homecoming talks about how past Cardinals are coming here, there are still Cardinals here, still here trying to represent, still not understanding what it is that we’re supposed to do,” Rodriguez said.
“Homecoming” is also a more inclusive term, as the event’s purpose is to welcome back “whoever calls this place home,” Leduc said. That can include retired faculty and staff, such as Phoebe Sturm, SUNY Plattsburgh’s first woman coach of the women’s basketball team. A sum of $25,000 was raised by the Plattsburgh community to dedicate to a space in her honor.
“‘Alumni weekend’ isn’t not-accurate, just not as inclusive as we want it to be,” Chapin-Lavigne said.
The Homecoming weekend consisted of over 25 events hosted in collaboration with various academic and athletic departments, Housing and Community Living, the Student Association, Greek life organizations and clubs. Events included a picnic, sports games, a formal networking event, a movie viewing, panel speakers, conferences, a bonfire and others.
“The more, the merrier,” Chapin-Lavigne said. “We will build our schedule as vast as we possibly can, but we don’t necessarily always know what’s of interest to these specific student groups or academic departments. If they tell us, we’re willing to work with them.”
Another criticism shared at the SA Executive Council meeting was that there was little opportunity for students, particularly clubs, to engage by planning their own activities.
The office of Alumni Relations starts planning Homecoming in spring and throughout summer to secure venues for large events, allow returning alumni to book flight tickets and hotels, while fulfilling the office’s other responsibilities serving over 72,000 SUNY Plattsburgh alumni. Chapin-Lavigne and Leduc have been planning Homecoming together since 2008. Sometimes alumni plan their visits as early as four years in advance, Chapin-Lavigne said.
Chapin-Lavigne acknowledged that “time flows differently for students,” but said student organizations may have better luck hosting events during Homecoming weekend if they communicate their plans with the office of Alumni Relations in the spring, summer or early into the fall semester.
“The best way to go about it is to start organizing in the spring,” Chapin-Lavigne said. “I mean, really, our Homecoming just ended, we’re going to start to plan for next year’s within a couple of months.”
Rodriguez said students should be voicing their concerns directly to the institutions coordinating Homecoming events.
“A lot of students are expressing their concerns, but they’re not expressing their concerns to the Alumni Association,” Rodriguez said. “I think if they did that, they’d be able to get the results that they’re looking for.”
Rodriguez said she wondered what “Homecoming” on the SA budget was for when she was looking it over at the beginning of the semester. When she questioned it, she found out that all the SA did for Homecoming was issue a check to Alumni Relations, without working with the office directly.
This year, Rodriguez approached the office of Alumni Relations and proposed a collaboration of two student-centered events, Trick-or-Trivia and a Zombie Escape Room, which alumni were welcome to join. Rodriguez noted that Trick-or-Trivia was more popular with younger alumni who graduated more recently, whereas the Zombie Escape Room saw more older alumni with their children.
Rodriguez tabled at the Fall Festival held at Hawkins pond Saturday, Oct. 15. She gave coloring sheets to the children of some alumni present, which she said helped the turnout to her two events.
In the future the SA will work more closely with Alumni Relations while planning Homecoming events, starting in the summer, Rodriguez said. She said she hopes to bring students and alumni closer by hosting more mingling events open to everyone, such as a “big party.”
“I definitely think that keeping Homecoming away from alumni is going to be nearly impossible, especially if [Alumni Relations] has been doing this year after year after year,” Rodriguez said. “They already know what they’re doing, they already know who the target audience is. I think it’s just we have to work amongst ourselves to figure out how to elevate that status so students can participate.”
Chapin-Lavigne echoed Rodriguez’s sentiment, saying she would “love to work with the Student Association in the future to collaborate earlier on a full schedule of events” for the entire Homecoming community.
Rodriguez also said she will work toward strengthening students’ school spirit with Aubrey Bresett, who is in charge of the “Rock the Red” campaign that encourages students, faculty and staff to wear red or SUNY Plattsburgh merchandise on Fridays.
Chapin-Lavigne and Leduc have high hopes for next year’s Homecoming.
“I do think for the first year post-pandemic having an in-person Homecoming, that we probably needed this year to kind of kickstart it again, although we were very pleased with the way Homecoming went,” Chapin-Lavigne said. “There was a lot of celebrations, a lot of happiness, a lot of tears when people were being celebrated or honored, and I think next year we’ll be even bigger and better because we’re back in the momentum of having an in-person Homecoming.”
Homecoming is meaningful to alumni because they can reconnect with the peers they studied together with, reminisce and make new memories at their beloved campus.
“I want to pay it forward,” said David DeCancio, a town board member for the Town of Bethlehem, New York and a ’94 SUNY Plattsburgh alumnus. “I love the idea of coming back because I want to support students. I want to start building a network, mentor them, bring them along — whatever I can do to help them thrive, because I want to see fellow Cardinals grow and thrive.”
For alumni, coming back to their alma mater is a way to give back to the community.
“I probably would not be where I am today had I not had those hands-on experiences that I was provided here, so now I want to give back,” DeCancio said.
“We really care about the college and our students,” Colleen Lemza, a ’90 and ’01 graduate and now chair of the public relations department, added.
Some alumni, like Matthew Veitch, like telling students stories about succeeding in life regardless of their chosen area of study. Veitch graduated in 1993 with a degree in secondary education and teaching, and now has careers in technology and communication, as well as politics.
“My lesson, somewhat, is that even though I didn’t do [what I majored in], my degree in Plattsburgh has helped in many ways as far as getting me to where I am professionally,” Veitch said. “Just having the Bachelor’s degree, or just having that experience of going through college, it automatically helps you in your career going forward. It’s valuable, no matter how you look at it.”
Both DeCancio and Veitch maintain a connection with the Plattsburgh community. Veitch said he visits the North Country “all the time, a dozen times a year.” He comes here with his family to hike, fish and “decompress from life.” DeCancio returns to Plattsburgh every five years to reunite with his brothers from the fraternity Theta Kappa Beta, which no longer has a chapter on the SUNY Plattsburgh campus. Together with his fraternity brothers, DeCancio celebrates the anniversary of the founding of the chapter, going on 65 years, and performs community service.
DeCancio and Veitch are both members of the Alumni Association. The Alumni Association is the “face of alumni” representing the college, but also works to recruit and retain students. DeCancio said he builds rapport with prospective students in his area, writing them letters about why he loves Plattsburgh.
“Those four years [at SUNY Plattsburgh] to me— I can’t even put into words how much I love this campus,” DeCancio said. “It’s very near and dear to me, and I want people to know that. And I’m hoping that helps attract people to come here, and hopefully they have the same experience I do.”
Even if not directly involved with the Alumni Association, alumni share memories and interact on Facebook. At the start of Homecoming weekend, DeCancio posted a picture of Pizza Bono’s “cold cheese pizza” on the Facebook group “You know you went to Plattsburgh if…” and received almost 600 likes and over 100 comments.
“That’s the stuff that connects us all, that’s what Homecoming is about, right? The old and the new,” DeCancio said. “It’s little things like this that make us.”