How is Psi Chi doing as it enters its 70th year in 1999? The messages of recent presidents agree on two points. First, Psi Chi "seems to be thriving" (Newman, 1998, p. 13), with remarkable vitality and growth in its number of chapters (915), individual members (325,000), finances ($2.6 million), and award programs (doubled in the past six years). Second, one reason for this vigor is that Psi Chi officers are constantly seeking specific gaps where our Society can further improve. For example, President Newman stated "We must still seek ways to enhance member involvement in chapter activities, to help reduce the cycles of ups and downs experienced by a number of our chapters, [and] to increase student and advisor participation in our projects" (1998, p. 17).
In this message, I ask you to consider with me one frontier where Psi Chi can grow the most, in its relation with its alumni. If we divide all of our 344,000 members into three groups -- students, faculty, and alumni--there is no question that alumni are by far the largest segment with perhaps some 90 percent of total members.1
What do alumni expect of Psi Chi? Sadly, graduating students are typically unclear about this. At one extreme, some new alumni expect too much, assuming it is an oversight that they no longer receive the free Eye on Psi Chi that was mailed to them at their chapter. But the other, more common extreme is alumni who expect too little of Psi Chi, in a few ways: (a) Many faculty, transfer, or graduate students often try to join Psi Chi a second time, not fully realizing they already became life members as undergraduates. (b) Many do not appreciate why their induction certificate is accompanied by a membership card, to serve as easy evidence of their life membership when they apply for a government job or further education. (c) Many are unaware they remain eligible for some Psi Chi benefits, such as conferences and other activities. Few alumni note that page two of the Eye on Psi Chi allows individual subscriptions for just $10 per annum so, to date, only a very few alumni are subscribers.
Are there alumni who want to remain connected with Psi Chi? Certainly. Many chapters have discovered how greatly Psi Chi and its alumni can mutually benefit each other. For example Jane Levine described her "recycling" of alumni as one of 10 keys to her chapter's winning the 1993 Cousins Award for best Psi Chi chapter. She notes: "In a way, our alumni are a valuable yet oft-ignored resource. Who is better qualified to advise current students than returning alumni who have gone on to success in careers or graduate schools, and can offer frank advice to the students now sitting in their former seats? . . . It also has been a pleasant sort of homecoming for alumni to return to their campuses in this important new role as Psi Chi speakers" (Levine, 1993, p. 8). Similarly, at Athens State College, Professor Frazier M. Douglass notes that "alumni members are, for the most part, the foundation upon which your chapter has been built" (1998, p. 15), and he goes on to detail five specific ways alumni and chapters contribute to one another. Where are our Psi Chi alumni? Happily, everywhere. APA Education Director Jill N. Reich notes that only a small percentage of the huge number of U.S. psychology majors continue into a career in psychology, with the great majority taking their psychology training as a background into business, education, law, medicine, social work, and other careers. Our accountant, physician, or Congressperson could be a Psi Chi member, though we may never know it.2
So exactly what is Psi Chi's direct relationship with its alumni members? Though upwards of 90 percent of members are alumni, they are ineligible to participate in most of the major competitions for students and faculty (Denmark, Guilford, Newman, Cousins), and do not learn of the few opportunities for which they are eligible. Some exceptions aside, those tens of thousands of alumni never send nor receive anything from Psi Chi once they leave school. As proud as they may be to belong to our fine Society, they enter "alumni oblivion," and Psi Chi becomes at most two words on their vita. Of course, many alumni want more than this. From our miniconventions, we see chapter officers heavily involved in Psi Chi work looking forward to staying active somehow after graduation. For example, Pace University alumna Natasha Lamarque continues to serve as an advisor for her chapter, and has suggested local alumni associations to maintain an active network after graduation.
Happily, this is now becoming easier, as Psi Chi considers whether, and how, to best reach its alumni. Up until 1998, the marvelous but small four-person Psi Chi office in Chattanooga, Tenn., has never had the staff to record more than the names of the 19,000+ people inducted each year. But thanks to new staffer Scott Gast, Psi Chi has now developed an efficient system to computerize addresses as well. So, starting with the 1998-99 year, Psi Chi will have the capacity to keep in contact with its interested alumni by knowing where they are in addition to who they are.
Perhaps the single best alumni development, which will be considered by the National Council in 1999, is to commission a credit card with the blue-gold Psi Chi emblem, for exclusive use by alumni, as well as active student and faculty members.
Should Psi Chi commission its own credit card? When 44 members at the 1998 miniconvention in San Francisco were asked this question on a ballot, 39% wrote No, 7% wrote Unsure, and the 55% majority wrote Yes. At first blush, a few Psi Chi officers, including me, noted some possible negatives of a Psi Chi credit card. Would this encourage students to seek credit prematurely and to develop financial problems? Might it inject an undesirable financial link between individuals and Psi Chi? Would the potentially large sums alter the character of our Society somehow? Upon further analysis, however, I for one found these misgivings minor, compared with several compelling reasons to commission a Psi Chi credit card: (a) A 1998 survey found that college students are already a prime market for new credit cards, and 67 percent of students already apply, usually in their first year at college. Contrary to expectation, these students tend to handle credit well. (b) Several honor societies have already issued a credit card to members, with good results, so Psi Chi is traveling an established path. (c) Psi Chi can arrange for chapters to receive useful materials from community service programs (like Consumer Credit Counseling, or Master Your Future) that coach students on how to avoid debt with sound financial habits. (d) The credit card firm, as part of its outreach, offers its state-of-the-art equipment to help Psi Chi staff develop and refine a mailing list for its U.S. alumni, which can then be used to strengthen our Society's alumni ties. (e) Not only will all our members (students, alumni, faculty) be eligible to receive a reputable card with favorable rates, but each purchase will generate a small, steady revenue stream for Psi Chi's endowment or other programs, based on a tiny commission it receives. (f) With these added resources--addresses, revenues, alumni interest--Psi Chi will be able to establish and fund new scholarships or awards to recognize outstanding alumni who have gone on to magnificent careers in public service or other vocations (including psychology), where at present no such mechanism exists. (g) Perhaps most significant is the renewed sense of identity the card offers our proud members out there in alumni oblivion, who would be able to carry the blue-gold Psi Chi emblem in their pocket. When MBNA Vice President Brad Timberlake was asked why universities find it easy to offer their graduates a credit card, he said it this way, "It becomes a 2-by-3-inch billboard" that the graduate can carry with pride. To the extent that many Psi Chi members remain visibly proud of their membership years later (Karlin, 1998), how many would like to carry such a Psi Chi credit card years after their induction, to use when they shop or travel?
Students reading this message should consider this. In a few years, you are likely to join the ranks of our alumni. Would you like to remain connected with Psi Chi? If so, how? Be sure to give us your views, at email@example.com.
Douglass, F. M. (1998, Winter). Building chapter strength by encouraging alumni involvement. Eye on Psi Chi, 3, 14-16.
Karlin, N. J. (Producer). (1998). Psi Chi: Encouraging excellence in psychology. [Videotape]. Chattanooga TN: Psi Chi.
Levine, J. C. (1993, Fall). Building upon our solid foundation. Psi Chi Newsletter, pp. 8-10.
Newman, S. E. (1998, Fall). Psi Chi at 69. Eye on Psi Chi, 3, 12-17.
1 Though we lack precise information on what percentage of Psi Chi's 344,000 members are deceased, it is reasonable to estimate at least 300,000 members are alive today, when we consider that Psi Chi numbered only 25,000 when Ruth Cousins began her duties in 1958.
2 Happily, Erica Heitner and Florence L. Denmark of Pace University received a Hunt Award for 1999, to do a systematic first-ever study of what happens to Psi Chi alumni members, at least within psychology.