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PUBLICATIONS Inside Illinois Vol. 27, No. 5 Sept. 6, 2007

Online network provides connectivity to Illinois community

By Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

Photo of Angie Dimit
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Networking Illini Alumni, students and other members of the Illinois family have been very receptive to Always Illinois, a private online community that was launched in September 2006 for College of Engineering alumni, and extended campuswide in August, according to Angela Dimit, director of advancement in the college.

Cultivating a sense of community at a campus that has tens of thousands of students can be a formidable task, but an online networking community has been created to help Illinois students and alumni – as well as faculty and staff members – stay connected.

Always Illinois is a private online community for members of the “Illinois family” to maintain lifelong friendships. Registered members can catch up with classmates or co-workers; connect with people who share their professions, geographic locations or leisure interests; work collaboratively with other team members on projects; browse job listings or network with prospective co-workers; share photos, or blog about campus life, their travels or other topics.

“Within the global community of the 21st century, Always Illinois will draw the Illini family closer together by creating and enhancing friendships,” said Chancellor Richard Herman. “By sharing loyalty to our campus through the social network of Always Illinois, students and alumni will enhance understanding, create opportunities for advancement and promote fellowship.”

The network was developed by Affinity Circles Inc., a company founded in 2002 by Stanford University graduates who had developed an online community at their alma mater. In addition to Illinois, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company counts among its clients an impressive list of universities – including UI peers such as the University of Michigan and Stanford University – as well as a number of fraternal, academic and professional organizations.

 The concept for an online networking community for Illinois alumni and students originated with a computer science alumnus in 2005, who suggested it to Tammy Nicastro, an alumni relations staff member in the College of Engineering. After exploring several potential developers, the college signed a contract with Affinity Circles in March 2006.

When e-mail invitations to join the community were sent to 15,000 e-mail addresses of engineering alumni in September 2006, the “response rate was unbelievable – it was off the charts,” said Angela Dimit, director of advancement in the college. Within 24 hours, 10 percent of the potential recipients had registered, far exceeding Affinity’s projection of a 1.5 to 2 percent response rate during the first week.

The network was made available to College of Engineering students in February. And when it was extended to alumni campus wide during the week of Aug. 6 by e-mail invitations to more than 85,800 alumni, it generated “an equally remarkable” response rate of 2.6 percent within the first 24 hours, Dimit said. At times, there were 300 simultaneous hits on the server, Dimit said.

Current students and faculty and staff members were welcomed to the community through e-mail in late August and early September.

The feedback from students and alumni has been overwhelmingly positive, Dimit said. “A lot of people have said, ‘Thank you for doing this and giving me a way to easily stay connected,’ ” Dimit said. “We want to find ways to help students and alumni stay connected in ways that are most meaningful to them,” whether that’s with student organizations, their degree-granting units, faculty members or friends and acquaintances.

While many Web-savvy Illini are familiar with popular social networking communities such as Facebook and Myspace, Always Illinois has added levels of security and privacy that those communities – and the communities created by some other universities – don’t have. Users get unique, one-time identification numbers for registration and create their own passwords, rather than using their surnames and birthdates to identify themselves on the network. Additionally, Always Illinois users control their own privacy settings, determining how much of their personal information is available to other members of the community. Users must agree to the Terms of Use set forth by the university as well as the Terms of Service required by Affinity Circles.

Always Illinois is provided as a free, lifelong service by the Office of the Chancellor in partnership with the UI Alumni Association and Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services. Visit the Always Illinois online community at www.alwaysillinois.org.


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