An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, is stranded in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. What does he do? He simply goes online to check his alumni site. And lo, he finds an old classmate in that corner of the world.
Ram Kelkar, director of IIT Bombay Heritage Fund, narrates this story to explain how "there is simply no other way we could have provided continuous connection to the alma mater and to fellow alumni without using the ubiquitous Web".
IIT Bombay Heritage Fund was one of the early alumni organisations to go online.
Internet becomes the natural choice when alumni associations want to keep the flock together. Chat, email and easy access to sites with campus news, pictures, programmes and message boards are unrivalled advantages. Fundraising is another difficult task made easy when alumni go online.
For instance, the Birla Institute of Technology and Science Alumni Association had no option but to go online. Founder member of BITSAA International, Venu Palaparthi says, "All 29 global chapters of BITSAA have periodic events at the chapter level. However, the only inter-chapter meeting place for us can be cyberspace.
"Prior to the Internet era we relied on word of mouth or snail mail to find out about BITS. Or we used to read in the Indian press about accomplishments of our BITSian friends. Then we realised the need to create a rock-solid Internet infrastructure to facilitate these global interactions and create a global village for BITSians."
Swapna Saha of Bengal Engineering College Alumni Association says it helps them to disseminate information to global alumni community quickly and cost effectively.
According to A P Suresh, president of the Mumbai chapter of Regional Engineering College of Calicut Alumni Association an online presence breeds a sense of belonging among far-flung members.
"It brings about a feeling of everyone being part of a family. This manifests itself in the form of exchange of greetings for festivals and birthdays. It helps in bonding," he says.
Fundraising has become a breeze since alumni organisations went online.
For BITSConnect project, which aims to connect the entire BITS Campus on a WAN, BITSAA expects to raise a fund of $1.5 million, mainly online.
"But the site soon grew big and became a virtual gathering of BITSians all over the world with almost 30 city specific alumni chapters across the globe associating with the Web site," says Sagar Dughrekar, co-ordinator for the Mumbai chapter of BITS Alumni Association.
"Fundraising through our site hasn't been done in the true sense but recently the Web came handy when we had a shortfall for a project in terms of collections against expenses," Suresh informs.
An entire section of IIT Bombay Heritage Fund Web site is dedicated to the topic of 'Giving to IIT Bombay'. According to Kelkar, the site has raised almost $20 million to meet the expenses for infrastructure improvements and to set up new schools.
BECAA uses their site and email newsletters to raise funds for their alumni projects. Now the Web site is being used to generate $100,000 to set up a state-of-the-art chip design institute.
Old boys club
Another area where alumni sites score is in providing a platform for interactions among alumni-entrepreneurs. BITSAA Center for Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital functions as a platform for effective communication among partners of potential entrepreneurships.
"We also use the site extensively for alumni project management because most of our projects for Pilani are global in nature. The site enables the global chapter network to work in a concerted manner," explains Palaparthi.
The IIT Bombay Heritage Fund offers help to set up Web services infrastructure by sharing their experience. They are willing to give their entire software and site code based on a zero-cost open-source license.
"This should help other institutes and organisations establish themselves quickly and begin 'giving back' to their alma mater and India," says Kelkar.
Dughrekar explains the need for exclusive alumni sites. He believes varsity sites with a mere alumni section have limitations.
"These are typically maintained as databases of alumni and give the latest info on the campus. But they lack up-to-date info on alumni activities and achievements," he points out.
Palaparthi explains BITSAA's plans: "The Web provides a wonderful point of convergence for all our constituents," he says. BITSConnect is expected to bring Internet connectivity to all hostel rooms and faculty offices in Pilani. Palaparthi feels that this will help the alumni to strengthen industry and academic linkages with BITS Pilani.
Suresh sees a future where alumni organisations might don the mantle of a universal family with the Web playing a crucial role.