UMBC Homecoming has undergone major changes over the past three years, and a trio of dedicated staffers who lead the university’s Homecoming Committee – Kevin Gibbons O’Neill ’86, economics, assistant athletic director, Jen Dress, coordinator of major events in the Office of Student Life and Stanyell Bruce, associate director of alumni relations – have spearheaded the makeover. We got them together to talk about why the university has spent so much time and energy improving the Homecoming experience – and just what’s in store when you visit us over the weekend of October 12 through 15!
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Why did UMBC decide to shift more emphasis to celebrating Homecoming as an event for students and alumni? And what’s changed as the university has done so?
Jen Dress: I think about the student who’s been here for four years. Our focus has been building an experience that students will think about when they are here – and that makes them want to come back as alumni. Four years ago, we had a lot of the same events, but they felt isolated from each other. Now we’re connecting them and increasing them in size and scope.
Take the Wednesday night bonfire. We now need an agricultural permit for the bonfire – which means a bigger, better, blazing fire. Students had skepticism about it: Will this really be cool? But you look at pictures and see how students are real close at the beginning and then have to move back as the bonfire ramps up. They see it’s a much bigger thing.
Kevin Gibbons-O’Neill: We in the athletics department have become better partners. For instance, we moved the soccer game to Friday night under the lights, and that’s created an amazing atmosphere. From Midnight Madness on Wednesday through the 5K Dawg Chase and club sport games on Saturday, we’re trying to make the experience fun. If students don’t have fun as freshmen and sophomores, they won’t come when they’re juniors or seniors – or when they are 40 years old.
What recent changes do you think will attract alumni – who are, after all, the traditional audience for Homecoming?
Stanyell Bruce: The alumni piece is challenging. But we’re getting better at it. We’ve only been doing Homecoming for 11 years, so alumni who graduated before 1999 really don’t identify with the event as much.
So we’re trying to let alumni know that there are a lot of options for them – and many events on the calendar are designed to appeal to different audiences. We have a community picnic on Saturday because we know that a lot of our alumni have families – and we wanted to have an event with an atmosphere that makes them comfortable bringing the entire family. But we’re also having a number of more grown-up events in the afternoon and evening, including a Taste of UMBC with live music from alumni bands. There is something for everyone.
Dress: Last year, the community picnic was a real gamble. We didn’t know what it was going to look like. But it was cool, because the event really does epitomize what sort of community we have at UMBC. There were athletics alumni coming over after a club game in the morning, or alumni coming for afternoon events stopping to eat first.
Bruce: We’ve put a lot of the day’s activities under the umbrella of “UMBC Festival” – the community picnic, carnival attractions, the Taste of UMBC. For me, it’s going to be exciting to see what the Quad looks like from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Homecoming Saturday.
Gibbons-O’Neill: Stanyell mentioned that we’ve only been doing Homecoming for 11 years. And as a university, we’re only 45 years old. You have to wonder what Homecoming was like at Harvard in 1681. Right now, we’re still the founders of what the tradition of Homecoming will be at UMBC.
— Richard Byrne ’86