KILLEEN — Successful universities rely heavily on their alumni — for donations, for networking, for mentoring. But what if you don't have many graduates to hit up?
That's a question Texas A&M University-Central Texas isn't waiting to answer. The college, chartered in 2009, is working to build an alumni base from scratch, using graduates of now-defunct schools that came before it.
The work is — to put it gently — tedious. It involves digging through musty boxes of records from since-shuttered universities and poring over thousands of names. But university officials say the effort is a crucial step toward building a strong presence in Central Texas.
“If we can begin to pull them together, then we have that base of support,” university President Marc Nigliazzo said.
Nigliazzo is optimistic, and that's because unlike most brand new schools in Texas, A&M-Central Texas has old universities to which it can trace its roots.
A&M-Central Texas operates as an upper-level university. That means all of its students enter in their third or fourth year of college; most transfer in from nearby community colleges. That follows a model that has existed in Killeen since the 1970s, when community leaders helped form the private American Technological University.
American Technological University's founders wanted a public university for the region but established ATU to fill the void in the meantime. In 1989, ATU was absorbed into another new private school, the University of Central Texas (UCT). That school lasted roughly a decade before morphing into a new branch campus of public Tarleton State University. That branch campus became A&M-Central Texas in 2009.
Through those iterations, the alumni of the two dissolved schools got left behind. They no longer had campuses to visit or school apparel they could buy. When Nigliazzo was named president of A&M-Central Texas and began giving speeches around town, alumni of the dissolved schools regularly approached him. Often, they’d ask whether they could get official degrees from the Texas A&M System, since their old schools had been absorbed by it.
Nigliazzo said that wasn’t possible. But he began to see potential to organize those former students. The only problem was that his new university didn’t seem to have any record of who went there.
Then, in 2014, those records appeared. Karen Clos, A&M-Central Texas' director of advancement and alumni relations, showed up at her new office on the school’s 672-acre campus and found a half-dozen large boxes inside. Workers said they’d found them under the floorboards of a building where some old university offices had once been housed.
Inside, there were photos of graduating classes and long lists of names and grade point averages — but no other identifying information. Clos began to dig. She spent weeks typing the names into spreadsheets and months Googling the graduates and trying to track them down.
“They shouldn’t be like the wandering 12 Tribes of Israel,” she said. “They should have a place to come home and feel welcome.”
The work has been arduous. Clos estimated there are about 10,000 alumni of ATU, UCT and the Tarleton State branch campus. So far, she has found good contact information for about 400 of them.
But when she has made contact, the response has been strong. She found Nancy Hennigan, a past member of the ATU alumni association. Hennigan’s group once had $10,000 in its account but no school to donate it to. Eventually, they got tired of managing it and gave it to a local community college. Now, Hennigan is president of the A&M-Central Texas Alumni Association.
Another ATU alumnus, Phil Gadd, said he was thrilled to hear from A&M-Central Texas. He said many of his family members graduated from A&M universities. Now, he’s proud to have that connection, too.
This month, the university made that tie official. The school couldn’t give out diplomas but tried the next best thing. It printed diploma-like certificates declaring Gadd and Hennigan “legacy alumni.” Unless you look closely at the paper, you can’t tell the difference.
Clos said she hopes to give out hundreds more certificates. She envisions hosting a ceremony where graduates of the dissolved schools can come see their new campus. For people like Gadd, it’s like coming to a new home.
“It’s not so much a benefit for the school as it is for the alumni, for the students who came first,” Gadd said.
Disclosure: The Texas A&M University System is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A full list of donors and sponsors can be found here.