Keeping the Connection
New Alumni Association President Todd French ’93 looks ahead to Illinois Wesleyan’s
As the new president of the Illinois Wesleyan Alumni Association, Todd French ’93
knows that most IWU students don’t perceive a connection with the alumni they see
visiting campus for special events or Homecoming class reunions.
“I can recall my time back as a student, and how I never associated my current role
as a student with my future role as an alum. After all,” French says, “you’re a student
for just a few years, but for the rest of your life you’re a graduate of Illinois
Now, with the University gaining national recognition, he believes that this is the
perfect time to help shape current students into becoming active future alumni.
“Now that we are classified as a national liberal arts university, we need to quickly
establish a new tradition of alumni involvement, and the best way to do so is to start
with our students,” French says.
French helped to organize the Alumni Executive Board in 2001 and previously served
as its vice president under Jean Sullivan Baird ’80, who completed her role as Alumni
Association president this year and is now a member of the University’s Board of Trustees.
“Admittedly, we were slow going in the beginning due to the tremendous task before
us,” says French. “But we soon established ourselves into a very efficient machine
— emulating many of the better concepts we viewed our target schools as having been
successful with, while creating our own unique mode and identity.”
At those peer institutions, French noticed how current students were regarded as the
next generation of alumni. In contrast, “even when the [Alumni Executive Board] was
formed, we had our meetings largely in secret — scurrying in darkness from meeting
room to meeting room so that we couldn’t be seen by the student body,” he says, laughing.
“Of course, that’s an exaggeration, but that’s what it seems like we had as our status
quo back at that time.”
French is working to change that. He and the rest of the Executive Board are planning
events for the express purpose of bringing alumni and students together — everything
from hosting receptions to sitting in on classroom activities.
“I want our alumni to get in front of the students now as much as possible,” he says.
“Our students need to know that the university in which they are developing consists
not only of students, faculty and staff, but of a much larger grouping of alumni.”
French knows well the impact that alumni support can have on a student’s life. He
attended IWU thanks to full scholarships, with most of the funds donated by alumni.
In 2001, he established the Todd M. French/StringWorks Talent Scholarship in order
to provide other worthy music students with the same opportunity.
French graduated from IWU in 1993 with honors and a degree in cello performance. He
went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Southern California.
In 1998 he started StringWorks, an e-commerce-based maker and retailer of stringed
instruments. The company is based in French’s hometown of Appleton, Wis., with workshops
in China, Romania and Hungary. More recently, he helped launch an electronic billing
and payment software company called Inovium. French still lives in Southern California,
where he is a cellist with the Los Angeles Opera. He and his wife Heidi have a daughter,
French was honored with IWU’s Robert M. Montgomery Young Alumnus Award in 2003. In
addition to his participation in the Alumni Association and as a trustee, he has served
as Reunion Chair for his class.
With two businesses and a family, this might seem like a surprising level of involvement
for a younger alumnus. But French has observed that recent graduates are often more
than willing to help their alma mater. “It’s true that they are entering a very difficult
and time-consuming era of their lives: establishing careers, finishing grad school
and perhaps even starting a family. The trick is to keep them interested, focused
and involved,” he says.
French knows that alumni may perceive “involvement” as a euphemism for “giving money,”
but he hopes this, too, will change.
“Rather than just ask for money, we should first make them realize they are still
family,” he says. “Once they tie themselves back to the University, connect again
with the students, bring back memories and recognize what IWU has done for them, I
believe that giving will occur organically.”
French notes that each graduates’ Illinois Wesleyan experience should guide him or
her to become more involved.
“I think that simply recognizing what Illinois Wesleyan meant to you is incredibly
revealing,” he says. “If an alum feels that IWU has helped them develop personally
and professionally, the natural progression of becoming involved will be the next
step. We just need to provide those opportunities.”
Being on Illinois Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees gives French added perspective about
his new role as Alumni Association president. “I feel it helps my tasks serving on
both boards,” he says.
“Interestingly enough, a recent trustees’ meeting revealed that several of my fellow
trustees feel a great disconnect between themselves and the alumni network,” French
says. One of his goals is to open up communication between the alumni and trustees.
Despite the challenges, French is very optimistic about the Alumni Association’s future.
“I look at the current board membership and the ever-growing number of volunteers
among our alumni. I see the excitement and drive of our young alumni. All the ingredients
are there for our Alumni Association to achieve great success and continued rapid
growth,” he says. “That is my hope.”