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Employee Spotlight

From the Ground Up: Building an Alumni Family

In January, Vicki Okerlund retired after 24 years in her position as director of alumni relations for the master of public administration (MPA) program at the BYU Marriott School of Business. From building an alumni network to forging one-on-one relationships with those in the MPA community, Okerlund leaves behind a legacy of Christ-centered leadership that extends beyond the workplace.

A smiling middle-aged woman with short brown hair wearing an orange sweater.
Vicki Okerlund retired in January of 2024 as the director of alumni relations for the MPA program.
Photo courtesy of Vicki Okerlund

“I have a new position I want to create for you,” Bob J. Parsons, former chair of the Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics, said to Okerlund when he reached out to her in 2000. “I think you’d be perfect.”

Parsons knew Okerlund not only as one of his former students but also as an associate in healthcare research, a position Okerlund held after graduating from the MPA program in 1991. Familiar with her skillset, Parsons wanted to bring Okerlund on to increase the MPA program outreach.

Upon accepting the role, Okerlund was given a monumental task: to build a database of MPA alumni. “When I started in 2000,” Okerlund says, “I had no idea who the MPA alumni were or how many alumni we had.”

Email wasn’t widely used at the time, so Okerlund, alongside a group of student employees, relied on phone numbers and mailing addresses to get in touch with former MPA students. She spent the first year of her new job compiling information—going through old graduation programs, picking the brains of retired MPA professors, and contacting known graduates.

By the end of 2001, Okerlund had compiled a database of 1,800 MPA alumni. While tracking down the alumni was a long and difficult process, Okerlund had a greater purpose pushing her on. There was a part of her experience as a student in the MPA program—the camaraderie and connection she felt with her small graduating class— that Okerlund wanted to rebuild within the MPA alumni network.

“When students go through the program, they feel like they're part of a big family,” Okerlund says. “You enter and leave the program feeling so connected. I wanted to put that feeling back into the alumni.”

She organized and attended events, coordinated newsletters, participated in faculty dinners, and appointed alumni representatives. Through her hard work and persistent outreach, a family of alumni began to form.

“My favorite thing is talking to the alumni one-on-one. I make an effort to answer every one of their emails and ask them how they're doing,” Okerlund says. “I look at them as individuals, like Christ did. When you have that one-on-one connection, they just start opening up.” Since the early 2000s, the MPA alumni network has grown exponentially and now encompasses over 4,000 graduates nationwide.

“As we connected with alumni, we saw how much they wanted to support students,” Okerlund says. After seeing firsthand how willing alumni were to help, Okerlund brought current MPA students into the mix. “Whenever students go out on career trips, I would host a dinner and pull the alumni together.” These events gave students access to a professional support system and gave alumni opportunities to become mentors. “It's very important that students know they’re part of a bigger family,” Okerlund says.

A middle-aged woman with short brown hair (Vicki Okerlund) holding a chubby blond baby who is peering wide-eyed into the camera.
Vicki Okerlund holds her grandson Mateo.
Photo courtesy of Vicki Okerlund

As the relationship between students and mentors has grown, so has the power of the alumni network to make a difference. In 2015, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the MPA program, students and alumni participated in a nationwide day of public service. As the MPA family—from San Antonio to Washington, DC,—gathered to clean up their communities, Okerlund's heart was touched. “It felt really impactful,” she says of the event, “to serve people, to be a Christ-centered leader.”

Service has since become an annual tradition for the MPA community. “We still do a day of service around here because they love it,” Okerlund says. “They want opportunities to serve.”

While growing the MPA alumni network has been challenging, at the end of 24 years, Okerlund reflects on her work with pride. “I have loved what I have done,” she says, “and I look back and I say, ‘OK. You did it, Vicki. You did what Bob Parsons asked you to do.’ I just hope that the alumni will stay connected.”

The first in her position as director of alumni relations for the MPA program and a disciple of compassionate connection, Okerlund has built a family of MPA graduates that spans decades.

“It's been a good ride,” Okerlund says with a smile.


Written by Shayauna Putnam