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  January 28, 2002

Health Center Graduates Now
Have Full Alumni Benefits
Pat Keefe

Alumni of the Farmington medical, dental and graduate schools can expect to hear more often from their graduate alma mater in 2002.

In a recent reorganization, the Health Center's Alumni Affairs Office was incorporated into the University's alumni relations office. As a result, Health Center alumni will now have access to the same activities, benefits and services that graduates of other UConn programs have long had.

Those activities and services include alumni events, discounts, insurance programs, educational programs, and networking opportunities.

"The timing is right," says John Feudo, executive director of the Alumni Association. "The Board of Trustees, President Austin, and the administration of the University have worked hard over the past few years to make UConn one university. By combining efforts in alumni relations, we're showing all graduates of any UConn campus that we are one family.

"It's a great opportunity to take an alumni association that's had 115 years of success, and use that as a vehicle to provide benefits and services to alumni of the health programs," he adds.

The Health Center alumni office has grown in fits and starts, but it took on new life in 1997. That year was the 25th anniversary of the first graduating class, and the idea arose of bringing back members of that class and some of the original faculty for a reunion. The task of making the idea a reality fell to Christine Niekrash, a School of Dental Medicine graduate, a faculty member, and a member of the 1997 Commencement Committee.

She soon realized what a big job it was: Organizing the event held a number of challenges, but the most difficult aspect of the project was tracking down and obtaining accurate information on the graduates.

"Most of the information was available, but it wasn't in one particular spot. It was everywhere, and we had to find it," Dr. Niekrash says. "We needed names, addresses, and telephone numbers and we wanted e-mail addressees if we could get them."

Niekrash headed the creation of a database, an essential first step to establishing communication with alumni.

Once the lines of communication were open, enthusiasm for the reunion began to grow - among alumni and emeritus faculty, but also among the staff.

The actual event far surpassed expectations. Old friends and classmates were reunited, and faculty met and embraced their former students.

Members of the graduating class of 1997 also attended the reunion, and spontaneously toasted the health and success of their academic progenitors. Not to be outdone, the alumni counter-toasted their new peers.

"It was awesome," says Niekrash. "There was a bond between the classes. The bond was the Health Center: it's what they had in common. And from that, genuine affection grew. It was like having your big brother at your graduation."

Subsequent reunions have proved equally popular.

Now that the office is reorganized, Niekrash has returned to the faculty full-time and is teaching courses on anatomy and histology.

She says she's glad to be teaching again: "The students are great - they're the reason this place exists.

"Working in the alumni office, I began to think of the students as alumni of the future," she adds. "It's a continuum. I'm now working with a newer subset of alumni-to-be."

Feudo says Niekrash has built an excellent foundation for the Health Center's alumni program. "Now it's up to us to build on that foundation," he says, "to find out what the alumni of the health sciences programs need and want from their alma mater, and to provide those services."

Alumni relations, he adds, is all about relationship building.

That mission now takes place on the third floor of the Health Center's Administrative Services Building. After the changeover, the office was relocated to the lower campus. Patricia Moore continues her role as administrative program coordinator.