Crib notes to the AYA

Anyone who completed a semester at Yale is a member of the Association of Yale Alumni. If you’re not sure what it does, you’re not alone. Here’s a guide.

David Zax ’06 has written for Time and Fast Company.

Illustrations: Mark Zurolo ’01MFA.

Illustrations: Mark Zurolo ’01MFA.

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Mark Dollhopf’s love of Yale and his love of music were always intertwined. After seeing the Yale Glee Club on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, Dollhopf knew where he wanted to go to college. As a member of the Yale Class of 1977, he indeed joined the Glee Club, and later was director of the Whiffenpoofs. “I lived the dream,” he recalls.

After Yale, Dollhopf built a company that did fund-raising on behalf of universities. He sold it in the early ’90s and suddenly had a lot of free time on his hands. Around the same time, Dollhopf met the former director of Amherst’s glee club, who had just taken some Amherst alumni on a European concert tour. Dollhopf got to wondering: why didn’t Yale alumni singers have similar opportunities?

In 1997, Dollhopf announced the first tour of what he came to call the Yale Alumni Chorus; 280 alumni, family, and friends swiftly signed up. Dollhopf then volunteered copious amounts of his time, organizing a three-city tour of China. It was a resounding success. For years, Yale alumni singers had enjoyed returning to campus to support the current crop of undergraduate vocal talent, but to be onstage again, to be “ambassadors of song,” in Dollhopf’s words, was thrilling. In 2001 Dollhopf organized a second tour, this time through Russia and the United Kingdom, including a stop at Elihu Yale’s grave in Wales. Soon, Yale Alumni Chorus tours became annual, with hundreds of alumni traveling around the world each year.

Then Dollhopf got a call from Linda Lorimer ’77JD, at the time Yale’s secretary and vice president, asking if he might be interested in running something called the Association of Yale Alumni, or AYA. Before running the YAC, “I didn’t know it existed,” admits Dollhopf, who had been operating the chorus without any official Yale affiliation.

The AYA, Dollhopf soon learned, was a somewhat diffuse organization whose overall goal was to keep Yale and its alumni connected. Technically, Dollhopf was already a member of the AYA, just by having gone to Yale. Those reunions he got invited to every five years? The AYA ran those. Those geographically organized “Yale clubs” all over the world? The AYA had something to do with those, too.

What Dollhopf didn’t know was that the AYA, which was decades old, wanted to undergo a makeover. Some members of the AYA’s board had begun to wonder whether there were better ways to engage alumni than those sporadic reunions and poorly understood clubs. Seeing the exuberance that alumni had brought to the Alumni Chorus, the AYA hired Mark Dollhopf as its executive director. He took office in mid-2006, and by 2008, the AYA had articulated a new direction for the organization.

The revamped AYA would have a new, four-part focus: first, on “shared interest groups” like the Alumni Chorus; second, on the handful of major US cities (New Haven, New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco) where nearly half of Yale alumni live; third, on community service; and fourth, on engaging volunteer leaders.

In this, says Howard Wolf, Stanford’s vice president for alumni affairs for the last 14 years, Yale was in some ways matching suit with other alumni associations, and in other ways distinguishing itself. Wolf says that by the early 2000s, many universities had begun to realize the power of shared interests to engage alumni. Yale’s emphasis on service, though, is distinctive to the AYA. “The idea that Yale’s alumni association exists to make the world a better place, through its alumni—that’s a dramatic difference from most alumni associations,” says Wolf.

Though no one has measured this with scientific accuracy, there indeed seems to be a new flourishing of Yale alumni activity since 2008. New shared interest groups have sprung to life, as have new initiatives like the Yale Day of Service, an annual exhortation to all alumni to give back to their communities. “We want alumni to know that they can make a difference through associations besides the college class or geographical club,” says Dollhopf.

Is your knowledge of the AYA as vague as its director’s used to be? Perhaps the best way to understand a house with as many rooms as the AYA is to peer through a few windows. Following are a few of its duties, programs, and affiliate organizations.