Launching The First Alumni Workshop Series for CCA’s Master of Design Program

How three graduate students planned a three month workshop series to help their peers bridge the gap between theory and practice.

It’s 7:30am and I’m post-workout, speed walking home from our neighborhood gym and mentally calculating if I have enough time to wash my hair before the weekly sync with my studio’s junior designers.

“Hey, don’t you live in the apartment above me?”

Kristine catches up from behind me. She is very good at speed walking. Also, I learn later, at everything else. It turns out we are indeed neighbors, go to the same gym at the same time, and we are both designers. She works at LinkedIn and I work at a small advertising studio, but I’m considering grad school. When I mention this, Kristine lights up talking about her alma mater, California College of the Arts.

TL;DR, I joined CCA and become one of three alumni representatives for the Interaction Design MDes program at CCA, regularly working with Kristine on alumni programming. Unrelated, we have since moved on to other gyms.

TTL;DR, the tasks of an alumni representative for a “COVID cohort” of 36 design graduate students changed dramatically in 2020. Gone were the mixers, panels, and hackathons (though we did get one or two of those in before March). Our duty to our cohort, however, remained the same: connect current students with those who came before them to foster a deeper, richer, education for both parties.

When CCA transitioned to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the alumni committee (Purva Takkar, Shervin Nakhjavani, and myself) knew we had to get creative. From over a year of getting to know our cohort, we also knew that many students were hungry for transparent and tactical advice about the transition to professional practice.

The idea of “Bridging the Gap”, a series of workshops hosted by our own alumni full of tips, tricks, and tales of industry experience, was born.

All the sessions of Bridging the Gap and select posters

🎥 Watch all sessions of Bridging the Gap on our YouTube playlist

  1. Establish The Vision. What does a successful series look like?
  2. The Art Of The Ask. In true student fashion, we had lots of questions — for both our alumni hosts and students participants.
  3. Create an Experience. Everything is experience design.
  4. Build a Brand. How do we make the series special and memorable?

Establish The Vision

What is the goal of a workshop series for our soon-graduating cohort, hosted by designers who have gone through the exact same experience?

We wanted students to come out of the experience informed, inspired, and supported. We wanted alumni to come out of the experience energized, connected, and curious.

The Art Of The Ask

True designers at heart, we first needed to consider our end user. What did our cohort really want to hear from alumni? What were they curious or confused about? What would draw them to yet another Zoom meeting?

Two months before the series began, we sent a short and sweet survey to the cohort, asking them to select the topics that they most wanted to learn about from alumni.

Our alumni contacts, along with a small group of students, helped us draft the list of topics

Beyond cohort curiosity, we also needed to know if alumni were interested in hosting these kinds of workshops. Would they feel comfortable doing so? How could we be a resource for them?

One of my favorite things about the design community is the widespread willingness to give back and keep learning — we received over a dozen responses from excited alumni!

I built a simple response tracker to divide communication responsibilities between Purva, Shervin, and myself, and keep track of each potential host’s status. By assigning a lead point of contact for each alum, we were able to streamline individual communication and quickly run through internal updates.

Create an Experience — For Hosts AND Participants

We realized that for busy designers with full time jobs, hosting an hour and a half workshop without financial compensation was no small ask. We asked ourselves: how can we best support our alumni throughout the process?

  1. Drive communication. I like to call it the ABCD method: Ask and answer questions early, “Bookend” meetings (an email before with an agenda, and an email after with next steps), Calendar invite always, and Document everything. Never put the onus on the host.
  2. Bring ideas, rooted in student feedback, to the table. Our hosts are designers too—they wanted to tailor their sessions to student needs.
    We made sure to come to the table with ideas about format and content based on the feedback and experiences of the cohort.

3. Facilitate with empathy and creativity. In our workshop brainstorm sessions, we stressed the importance of interactivity and open conversation. If the host was planning to run an exercise, could we put together a Figma board with pages for each student? If they had a fun warm up idea, did they want us to set up a Freehand whiteboard? Would they like us to use their LinkedIn bio to introduce them, or include other information?

Drawing squiggle birds in InVision Freehand during a workshop warm up
Skill mapping in Figma during a workshop exercise

Build a Brand

Consistent and recognizable visuals create an elevated, polished presence, both within our CCA network and the professional networks of our alumni hosts.

Promotional posters for each session
Custom Zoom backgrounds for each host and student moderators
Custom social assets for each host, provided after their session as a thank you
Posts from hosts using our custom assets
YouTube playlist of all sessions with custom thumbnails

Response and What’s Next

What started as an idea to help our cohort bridge the gap between design theory and practice in May of 2020 grew into a workshop series with 9 sessions and 12 alumni hosts over the course of 3 months (September through November of 2020). Over half of the cohort attended every session, on average — about 20 students per session.

The final session of Bridging the Gap

The response, from hosts and participants, was overwhelmingly positive.

After the last thank you emails had been sent and students had been reminded again (and again) where to find a repository of all Bridging the Gap decks and recordings, Purva, Shervin, and I held a BtG retrospective meeting to celebrate and talk about everything from our successes to where we could have improved.

The result was the Bridging the Gap Playbook — clear step-by-step documentation of how we created and ran the series. We’ll pass the playbook down to the next cohort’s alumni representatives; we hope they can use our guide to make BtG their own in the coming years.

Bridging the Gap Playbook

However they adapt it, I hope what rang true for me throughout these past seven months of planning and creating also does for them:

Think of the series like a design brief. The diverge and converge flow of the design process applies here. Ask yourself the big questions, like “why is this important information to communicate?” to the small, like “what’s the best way to set up individual workspaces for this collaborative exercise?”

Stay flexible. Hosts will drop out, dates will change, tech difficulties will happen. Pivoting is okay!

Invest in project management. Bridging the Gap was only possible because of good project management. Between asset management, scheduling, timely internal and external communication, and establishing dedicated processes for all of the above, it’s worth designating one person as Project Lead or Project Manager, even if there is some overlap in responsibilities.

Final Thoughts

When I volunteered to be an alumni rep in September 2019, I could never have expected what the next year and a half would bring. But my experience supporting our cohort of 36 design students was a master class in thinking past how to make the most of institutionalized education and instead tapping into the rich well of knowledge—from both the institutions and lived experience—of those who came before us. All you have to do is ask.

Infinite thanks to our wonderful hosts:
Kristine Yuen, Jae Oh, Kevin Arcara (LinkedIn)
Sohaj Singh Brar (Facebook)
Minhye Kim (Google)
Aaron McKenzie (Taylor Design)
Sneha Gokhale (Invitae)
Coby Gould (Stealth Start-up)
Lauren Argo, Leah Meyerholtz (Cruise)
Frances Castillo (Microsoft)
Macie Wan (Apple)
Joe Tutterow (Twitter)
Yuan Wang (YUAN Studio)
Josh Silverman (CCA MDes)
Sarah Ludwig (Amazon)
Jon Jordan (Salesforce)

And to my supremely patient and supportive rep team: Purva Takkar and Shervin Nakhjavani.

If you’re still curious about Bridging the Gap or just want to chat, I’d love to hear from you. Thanks for reading!

Designer + MDes Candidate at California College of the Arts

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