This project set out some very clear aims. I intended to identify the critical components of a successfully digitally-transformed alumni relations programme.
This involved eliciting the best practices for undertaking and managing such a transition, as well as implementing innovation, and investigating areas for new investment. The goal was to produce a clear set of recommendations for UK institutions, and hopefully some that could apply to the wider world.
To study this material, I planned travel from Boston down the East Coast to Washington DC, and from LA up the West Coast as far as Vancouver, Canada. I set off in February 2017, with a substantial interview list and a fairly monstrous itinerary.
It was the trip of a lifetime. It’s a rare opportunity to combine a passion, a subject area you care about and are relatively expert in, and the joys of travel.
In the end, I visited Boston, Worcester, Hartford, Stamford, Fairfield, Hamden, New York, Baltimore, Washington DC, Arlington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver. I made friends. I collected memories. And I learned about what I needed to write.
The timing of my trip meant I had a strange experience, being just a few months after Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States of America. I have travelled to the US several times previously under Obama. This was different.
I observed several things in the planning phase. I pass no judgement on the ultimate responsibility for these observations, but I feel they must not go unsaid.
My fiancee, Kiran, intended to accompany me on part of my trip. Kiran is a Pakistani national, born in Saudi Arabia. Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban remained in force up until the day before we were due to travel. As a result, we didn’t know whether she would be admitted at all. Pakistan was not on the banned countries list, but the implications of the tone of the ban were clear for us all to see.
It was a very strange experience – as someone who is fortunate enough never to have come face to face with any personal persecution or discrimination – to examine how this felt.
I was scared. Scared for her. Scared about the experience she might have when she landed. Scared that there was nothing I could do about it. Scared about the uncertainty we faced waiting to see how it was going to play out.
I was angry. That someone I loved, with a valid US visa, who had done nothing but be born into a particular country or religion, might be refused entry to visit what was supposed to be one of the world’s bastions of freedom and opportunity.
I was deeply uncomfortable too, for our freedom of speech. This was the first time in my life I have removed posts from Facebook and Twitter which could be read as being against the administration. I hated myself for it – so much so that I almost boycotted the trip. In the end, we decided together that it was not the US that did not want us. And that we would be welcomed by those we had intended to visit. More on this later.
These are emotions – and values clashes – I wish I had not had experienced. No-one should have to.
In the end, the ban was adjudged unconstitutional the day before we were due to travel. This did not relax us at all. But it passed without incident – something for which we are incredibly grateful to the wonderful and welcoming staff at Boston airport.
Wider context, and experiences
Above, I mentioned that we had decided to travel as we would be welcomed by those we intended to visit.
This felt uncomfortable at the time we made that decision. It seemed exclusive. Elitist. Precisely the reasoning which is leading to so much division.
To me, on this visit, the US – and even Canada – has never felt so broken. Perhaps because I had travelled with a greater sense of naivety before, and so I didn’t see it. There was anger everywhere. Simmering resentment. Denial. From everywhere.
More than once I heard people speak with serious venom about the administration, and Trump himself. Considering that the vast majority of those I was meeting were firmly on the opposite end of the political spectrum to Trump, I had expected sadness. Resignation. Stoicism. I encountered none of it – instead, seething anger. It was a bit of a shock.
I also experienced some of the nastier sides of the incredible wealth inequality that exists in the US (and indeed in Canada). In Boston and New York, it was clear that areas were being cleared of those without a home – and they were being moved to other concentrated areas where they would be less visible. In Washington DC and Baltimore, poverty and homelessness was unavoidable. In LA I was physically assaulted in a Starbucks – by a 6’6″ drunk, white man – who didn’t like my answers to his questioning about my view on “[black men] coming here and stealing all the white [women]”. The staff looked on, terrified. I left, terrified.
In Seattle, I met people just as angry with the election result and the policies of the new administration. Outside the buildings they worked in, a new glass building was being built with millions of dollars of investment, whilst literally scores of homeless people sat around just metres away in a tent city. I couldn’t help but wonder what “social justice” meant to these people. And I couldn’t help but debate my own privileged fear at our travel concerns.
In Vancouver, a man collapsed on the road in front of me, foaming at the mouth. Two apparently helpful strangers picked him up and put him on the pavement. I assumed this was to help him. It wasn’t – it was to get him out the way of traffic. No-one called an ambulance – until I did. An ambulance didn’t come – a fire engine did. The man was homeless, the fire brigade had little interest once he could walk. They assumed he was on drugs and had “just ODed”, and left him there. It appears that there is a huge homelessness and drugs problem in Vancouver, and little patience for those who are victims of it.
To experience all of this in just a month of travelling felt strange. This was not how I saw the US (or Canada). It felt a different place.
There were some beautiful moments too – the Boston Patriots winning the Superbowl from an impossible position whilst we were there, and the subsequent victory parade; the unbelievable snowstorm we drove through in Connecticut; visiting an extraordinary natural history shop in NYC; being shown around Washington DC by my new sister-in-law; being introduced to Aneesh Chopra by the same sister-in-law; visiting the Botanical Gardens in Los Angeles; watching the sunset in Seattle and Vancouver.
And finally, standing on a piece of my hometown – Bristol, UK – whilst in Manhattan. That was a humbling experience. A small patch of Manhattan is built on the ruins of Bristol. During World War II, munitions boats crossed the Atlantic regularly. Upon leaving Bristol to return to the US, they needed ballast. And at the time, all Bristol had to supply was the ruins of the bombed out buildings of my hometown, which were subsequently dumped in the harbour.
At the peak of the war, this happened with such intensity that the ballast eventually reached surface level, and a small patch of land, on which now sits a hospital, was formed. My former school, Bristol Grammar School, lost most of one building to the bombing. I studied in it, once rebuilt on the same foundations and walls. I’d like to think that below the patch I stood on were a few stones of my childhood.
These experiences were all emotional, but unforgettable, all the same. I’d do it all again.
As a small but potentially useful addendum to those travelling to the US in future, I also discovered a curiosity about the manner in which I could get meetings.
On the East Coast, at least 3-4 weeks planning was both required and welcomed.
On the West Coast, 3-4 weeks planning almost always elicited no or little response. Whereas 1-2 days worked like magic.
I don’t know whether this is cultural or anecdotal, but it has been true across three separate visits I have made to the US over the past 3 years.
Read on to the Future.