practitioner perspective

Samantha Varner

Cal State Northridge


Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with Samantha Varner, Director of Alumni Engagement at California State University – Northridge (CSUN)

I asked Samantha to share with our readers why she embarked on the client journey with Protopia, and how the solution has impacted alumni and student engagement at CSUN. 

Ryan: What are you working on these days at CSUN, and how has Protopia been part of your work engaging alumni and students? 

Samantha: CSU embarked on an initiative to improve graduation rates a few years ago. And part of that is linking students to mentors and hiring managers with connections to CSUN.

And so Protopia actually is a big part of that. We created Ask a Matador for an easy way that students and alumni could connect. Alumni are very busy. Sometimes students want a mentor and need to ask a question sort of in the middle of the night rather than eight to five. So Ask a Matador gives us the opportunity to serve both of those populations where they’re at.

Ryan: That’s fantastic. How did you find out about Protopia in the first place? 

Samantha: When I started at CSUN six years ago, we had a traditional online platform that had been around for a couple of years. It never fully connected with students and therefore never really took off.

Max Leisten showed us there was a very different way to approach the problem. One that focused on simplicity. For alumni – no downloads, no signups, no logins as well as lots of control. For students — an informal, quick way to connect with alumni in a way that reduces their anxiety about networking.  What Protopia is doing is unique and their technology engages people where they are.

Ryan:  You alluded a little bit about how Protopia fits into your overarching strategy. Could you share just a little bit more about that?

Samantha: I think one of the unique ways that we are using Ask a Matador is that we are integrating Protopia data with the rest of our database. This way, we recognize the time alumni are volunteering for us. In addition, we can strategically reach out when we think about presenting new volunteer opportunities. We can even know if they have a certain subject matter that they are an expert on and we know that they are willing to talk about it to students.

And so we’ve sort of used it as an alumni engagement tool and completely broadened our volunteer alumni horizons. Protopia reaches brand new alumni volunteers that haven’t ever been tapped before, which is exciting for us. We don’t have to go back to sort of the same alumni volunteers each time. We’re continually getting new volunteers with new expertise.

Ryan: Yeah, that’s awesome. Can you share your vision for Protopia at CSUN, what milestones do you hope to achieve as you continue to integrate Ask a Matador into your programming and to the student life at CSU?

Samantha: We’ve had a couple of recent wins linking up with some professors across campus who have required, asked students to submit a question as part of the curriculum, so they they get practice phrasing the question, following up, networking, but also are taking advantage of a proven tool that they didn’t know existed prior to that class. So we feel like we’ve made a lot of headway with our academic partners in a sense. And so I think now it’s time to use Ask a Matador as a tool in advising. 

We have 40,000 students, so advisors can’t invest the time they would like with every student. Ask A Matador can help students explore and refine the questions. Protopia can also make academic advisors’ and the career counselors’ meetings more efficient because students will be walking in with more knowledge and context. (I wish I would’ve had that when I was a student!) 

Ryan:  How have some of the faculty members you’ve worked with at CSUN felt about Protopia? You’ve been able to successfully integrate the Ask a Matador into a course curriculum, right? 

Samantha: Yeah, very excited! Once we got that first win with the faculty member who sort of required it as part of her curriculum, the students understood what benefit they were receiving from this. And we’ve had many students repeat asking questions because they got something out of it. I think it made it easier for her to talk about the platform to her colleagues and say, well, I did this great thing. The students all received wonderful responses. Some of them more than, you know, the standard two or three responses.

Ryan: I have to imagine if you are a faculty member and your students have this additional enriching experience with the content of the course and recommending it seems like a no brainer.

In addition to faculty partnerships, you’ve been working with Protopia on your DEI engagement strategies, right?

Samantha: Yes. So DEI is a huge focus on the CSUN campus. Mostly because our student population is incredibly diverse. We are a Hispanic serving institution. So I think that Protopia specifically is an additional resource to students seeking advice from someone that has been in the same shoes that they are currently in and is walking the same path that they’re currently walking and experiencing CSUN from their point of view.

Ryan: That is great. I would imagine that this is helping to dramatically expand the networks that first gen and other students can actually access. Does the Protopa dashboard help with with more than just reports, data and key metrics??

Samantha: So one of my favorite things is looking at that list of alumni who have engaged and seeing how many of those are first time engagers. We then also conspire to  figure out how to generate their next engagement. 

I also think sentiment and the feedback rating scores are important as we sort of move forward and grow the platform because we want to ensure that those are staying positive, in the way that they are now that everybody is having a good experience with the platform as well.

Ryan: Last question for you, just tell me a little bit, if you were sharing about Protopia with another Cal State system colleague at another university, how would you describe it and your success in rolling it out??

Samantha: First, it’s our job to engage with alumni and oftentimes they don’t have time, but they have the desire to help students. I’d say second, students often need help, but they don’t know where to turn. And on top of that, our alumni staff is small. While we are mighty, sometimes we just don’t have time to make some of those connections because we’re just overloaded. So I think this Ask a Matador and Protopia specifically solves all three of those issues.

I’m for anything that provides students with the advice and the help they need to increase those graduation rates, to reduce times to graduation and to set them up for great careers, postgrad experiences and great lives. Many people don’t realize, askers don’t just ask about career advice, sometimes they ask how to thrive postgrad, and that is what they get with Ask A Matador and Protopia.


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