Building bridges

Nicholas Lakas, 82, remembers helping a GW undergraduate student two years ago. The student was interested in the Foreign Service and asked the alumni association that Lakas, a former career Foreign Service Officer, mentor him.

“I offered him career advice and information that would help him reach his goal,” Lakas said.

Lakas gave the student resources to learn about the Foreign Service and told him about the procedures of the program. After the two had been working together for some time, the student came up to Lakas with a different kind of question.

“He asked me ‘why are you doing this?'” Lakas said. “I explained that it was simple: because he asked me to.”

Lakas is the president of GW’s Alumni Association, which represents more than 150,000 alumni worldwide and is the umbrella organization for the individual school associations. Providing services that range from networking socials and directories of alumni contact information to alumni access to University facilities, such as basketball games at the Smith Center, the GWAA aims to assure that although students may leave the campus, they are still connected to the GW community.

Since taking office last year, Lakas, a 1946 graduate of the School of Government (now the School of Business and Public Management), said he has been dedicated to strengthening the alumni-student network to reach the level of many Ivy League and other prestigious universities.

“We are still growing,” Lakas said. “For a very long time we were a concrete campus and only since the ’70s have the ties of community been strengthened. When students walk around campus they feel that they are part of something.”

Lakas led the way for a new program that offers grants of up to $5,000 to the various schools that propose ways to reconnect alumni to the University. For example, the Mount Vernon Campus proposed a women’s leadership seminar that invites alumni back to campus. Grants have also been awarded to the Graduate School of Education and Human Development and the Elliott School.

Senior Maria Comella, the president of the Student-Alumni Society, says that Lakas’ passion for the University and its students has really helped lead the GWAA in its new direction.

“He’s one of those people who is always really enthusiastic about everything,” she said.

The Student-Alumni Society, made up of about 25 students, works to foster relationships between students and alumni. Through networking socials, panels and other events, they work to get the word out that alumni want to help.

“It’s amazing how many alumni are really excited to know what’s going on with the University, but the unfortunate thing is that the students are not at all aware of the alumni presence on campus,” Comella said.

She said the society offers a mentoring program to help connect students and alumni. Each fills out an application and they are matched up according to similar interests and career goals.

“It’s a great way for students to learn how to get where they want to go, but for some reason, we have more mentors apply than students,” Comella said.

She said during her sophomore year she was uncertain about her goals and shy about her lack of experience, but an alumnus helped her attain a competitive internship in Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watt’s office.

“So many alumni are willing to talk to students at length about their jobs or how they got there,” she said. “Someone helped them when they were starting out and now they want to do the same for someone else.”

Jason Miller, the director of Alumni Benefits and Services, said the association is working to develop a way of making it even easier for students to find and contact alumni who have positions in markets or industries that they might be interested in entering.

“We are currently working in conjunction with the Career Center to develop an online, searchable database where students can easily find someone to talk to about their career goals,” Miller said

Currently, this information is available at the Career Center through a program called Colonial Connection. Six months after students graduate, the Career Center sends them a survey about their post-graduate successes. In an attached flier, they offer them the opportunity to submit their contact information so that students looking for jobs in these fields can know how to get a hold of them.

Sophomore Sherri Weinstein, a staff assistant at the Career Center, said the information is separated into the categories of location, school and occupation.

“A student from Buffalo who is returning home for the summer can come in and check out the location binder for jobs in Buffalo,” Weinstein said.

She said the information is constantly updated and that every year more and more alumni agree to join the list.

“There is a pretty diverse selection of jobs and locations,” she said. “If you can’t find exactly what you are looking for, you will at least find someone who will work at another part of a company who can help open a door.”

Lakas said he believes that as long as the University continues to grow, the value of the education and the GW experience will grow as well.

“This is our University and when it does well, so do we,” Lakas said with a smile. “That is why when the basketball team wins, I am proud. Especially when it is the women’s team.”

University President Steven Joel Trachtenberg, who said he likes to sit with Lakas at the basketball games, called Lakas a “great booster of the University.”

“He’s valued through his leadership,” Trachtenberg said. “He’s really made GW a part of his life, which is what we need from all alumni.”

Lakas said the main the reason why he is willing to help out students is to set an example.

“My hope is that you will remember what I’m doing and will continue the pattern,” he said.

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