Nicknamed “Kamikaze Friend Maker” by her mother because of her innate ability to make friends very easily at a young age, little did Montique Cotton Kelly, executive director of the UConn Alumni Association (UCAA) and UConn’s assistant vice president for alumni relations, realize that this attribute would one day serve her well. Called “Mo” by her family, friends, and colleagues, Cotton Kelly took the helm of the Alumni Association on June 13, 2014, after having served 18 years in various leadership positions at her alma mater, Bowling Green State University, where she earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Cotton Kelly credits her military roots and tight-knit family for her success in alumni relations. Her father, who was in the U.S. Air Force, traveled frequently. Born in Canton, Ohio, the youngest of three children, she and her siblings lived on a couple of military bases. She recalls having attended many schools. By the time she graduated from high school in 1990, she had attended 13―three of them in Wisconsin. Cotton Kelly considers this a blessing, citing that it helped define part of her personality. She feels that her knack to establish friendships quickly is an integral part of alumni relations. She and her husband, James, have a son, Lincoln (7), and daughter, Kenya (3).
Cotton Kelly shares her journey from being a Falcon to a Husky, her vision for the Alumni Association, and what she’s most passionate about.
You are a Bowling Green State University (BGSU) alumna and worked there for 18 years. What attracted you to the executive director position of the Alumni Association?
I had lived in Connecticut from 1994 to 1996 and was familiar with what UConn had achieved academically. An executive search firm called regarding the position and I was flattered. I informed them twice that I couldn’t investigate it at the time. There was a lot going on at BGSU, and I couldn’t pursue the role until football season ended.
UConn is an incredible institution. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of it? The position was an obvious next step for me professionally. I knew that I could evolve the UCAA and work strategically to engage alumni and show what a unified front can do.
You’ve been in your current position for seven months. What are your immediate priorities?
I’m reviewing staffing, budget, and goals that were established before I arrived. I’m looking at our membership-dues model, wanting to make it inclusive. I’m also reviewing how we’re communicating with alumni. I would like to do more data mining. I think it’s critical for harnessing new names. I’m also aligning our goals with the University’s, making sure that we’re in synch with each other. I underestimated the amount of decentralization on campus and would like to make it look like we’re one institution. Whether you’re from the Neag School of Education or the School of Dental Medicine, it’s one pipeline, one UConn.
What do you most enjoy about your job?
I love meeting our alumni and getting to know our alumni base and my colleagues. Everyone has been very welcoming and so willing to help. I enjoy sharing the great things about UConn―from its great history and traditions to the master plan of our campus. The UCAA should be the happiest place in the world and a conduit of all good things happening.
What are some of the challenges you’re facing?
One of the challenges is how to better engage our more than 223,000 alumni worldwide and get their support. We have many ways for our alumni to be engaged, from networking events to career resources. However, the challenge is how to work together as a community. Last October, we launched two new signature events: Huskies Forever Weekend, which was attended by more than 1,600 alumni and friends, and An Evening with Champions, a sold-out event attended by more than 425 people that raised money for UConn student scholarships. Both events showcased what a unified UConn can achieve.
Another challenge is the decentralization of all alumni services on campus. It’s a big animal and communication will play a critical role in this. We need to bring people to the table to represent one UConn and change the culture from exclusion to inclusion. I’m also revamping our membership model.
I’d like to build a stronger reunion programming at UConn. Last, but not least, how do we define engagement and how do we reuse it? I’d like to develop metrics on how to measure engagement success.
How are you further engaging UConn alumni?
We have many ways to get alumni engaged. If athletics is their thing, get them to sports events. If academics is their thing, get them to a poetry reading. President Susan Herbst is engaging alumni through our Presidential National Series events. This is the first time that we’ve had our president out on the road, meeting alumni. The fact that she’s willing to travel to Texas, Florida, and California as well as around our state, speaks volumes, and the post-event surveys indicate that our alumni enjoy seeing her and hearing her vantage point.
There’s no difference between UConn and BGSU alumni. No matter where you are, wherever you find alums—they love their institution. We have rabid UConn alumni. I want to engage our alumni locally—whether they’re in Connecticut, Boston, or New York—and let them know that the Alumni Association is here to help them stay connected with the University and other alumni. I’d like to help them stay engaged and spread that engagement.
The UCAA is also working with students on campus. We cannot have engagement or traditions without them. I want our students to know that the UCAA is not only here in the present but also after they graduate, and that they’re an alum from Day One.
We’re also working with such affinity groups as the UConn Alumni Marching Band, our Greek organizations, and Cultural Centers. They’re gravitating toward a shared experience at UConn. I want to bring our alumni and students together. It’s not the year you graduated, but the affinity that’s just as important. I want to help alumni relive their moments and see the changes on campus while helping students create memories.
How do you envision the future of the Alumni Association?
I envision the UCAA to be a more inclusive organization. I want to evolve the existing culture and make it more integrated into the fabric of our University. Currently, we’re a patchwork quilt that’s not part of a seam. We need to be a seamless operation—one UConn—and we’re on our way. The alumni relations world is a people business and we need to continue to deliver great customer service to our graduates. I want to get our alumni reenergized and excited about their alma mater.
What do you want alumni to know about you?
I want alumni to know that I’m very family-oriented. I love my children and husband. My mom lives with me, and I’m fortunate to have a supportive family unit. My family helps me be a better person. My husband gave up his job to relocate to Connecticut. Everybody was all in, and it made the decision to leave my beloved alma mater easier. I had to make some sacrifices, but I can’t have it all. I work for work-life harmony not work-life balance. If you strive for harmony, you’ll be a healthier person.
I’m also passionate about my friends. I’m a very social person, so you’ll always see me talking with students and staff. I’ll always make time for an alum, staff member, and friend. I believe that when alums travel from Connecticut or California, it’s important to spend a few minutes with them to say thank you. I want them to know that UConn is their home and that our doors are always open for them. Always spend time with an alum who wants to spend time with you. I’m also a rabid Huskies athletics fan.
There’s a renaissance taking place at UConn. The sky’s the limit, and I love being a part of a sky’s-the-limit organization. One of my goals is to make UConn one of the best institutions in America. The UCAA is part of a spoke in the wheel―and together, we can make it happen.
Editor’s note: Stay connected with Mo on her monthly blog.