For the past five years, freshman students have received a special welcome into the Bear family. In addition to orientation and in-person activities to mark the beginning of their new chapter at Mercer University, each new student on the Macon campus receives a letter from an alum.
The Freshmen Welcome Letters project was started by Amy Griswold Martin, a 2005 technical communication graduate and leader of Mercer’s Atlanta alumni chapter.
In 2015, Mercer alumni chapters began hosting sendoff parties for students in their cities who were going to Mercer. That wasn’t possible with the number of Mercer-bound students from Atlanta, so Martin suggested that Atlanta alumni write welcome letters to students instead. That idea quickly grew to include all alumni and the entire class of incoming freshmen, she said.
Every summer, Alumni Programs Coordinator Anneliese Vanderhyden sends Martin a list of incoming students, and then Martin assigns letters to alumni who want to participate. The alumni choose how many letters they want to write and can request to write to students in specific groups, such as athletes or students of certain majors or geographic areas.
After Martin collects the completed letters and sends them on to Vanderhyden, they are given to residential students when they check into their residence hall and to commuter students during Bear Beginnings. This year, the letters were given to students with their Bears Care kits, which included face masks, hand sanitizer, a button, a sticker and health information.
Martin said she loved her time at Mercer, and freshman move-in day was always her favorite day as an undergraduate student. She enjoyed the excitement and being able to welcome the newest Bears to campus. The letters project was a way for her to give back to the University and to continue welcoming new students. The project is rewarding from both sides.
“Alumni want to stay involved in the University, and this is an easy way to stay connected,” she said. “They are very appreciative of the opportunity to do something like this. For students coming in, the letters give them a big family feel. It’s nice to help students see that there are alumni who care about them and want to see them succeed.”
The first year, 163 alumni wrote 850 letters, and 112 alumni wrote more than 900 this year. Members of the Class of 1970 to the most recent graduating classes participate, with the majority coming from the Classes of 2000 to 2005. Most write five to eight letters, but some turn in more than 30. One alum wrote 60 letters this year.
The alumni write about what makes Mercer special to them, offer advice and encouragement, and share their college experiences, Martin said. It’s a chance for them to get to know future alumni, and they often leave their contact information in case the students want to stay in touch, Vanderhyden said.
The letters come as an unexpected surprise to many of the freshmen. They are mostly hand-written, come in all shapes and sizes, and are addressed to the students. The new Bears appreciate the fact that there’s a real person behind the letters, said Kelly Holloway, assistant vice president for Enrollment Management.
“We’ve gotten really positive feedback from students and parents saying it’s such a nice welcome, and it’s so indicative of the personal touch that is Mercer,” she said. “It’s really meaningful for these students and the families to see that they’re joining a community of people who really want to wrap their arms around them and support them to become the very best version of who they are meant to be.”
Donald Rhodes, Judy Wilbanks, Kristina Hanson, and Lamar and Sandy Sizemore are some of the Mercer alumni who have been writing letters since the project’s inception.
Rhodes, who graduated in 1984 with an economics degree, pens seven to 10 letters each year and asks to write to students going into business or pre-med. In his letters, he offers his congratulations to the new Bears, thanks them for choosing Mercer, encourages them to stay committed, and shares a little bit of his personal story.
“This particular class will graduate 40 years after I did,” he said. “I don’t know where the time has gone, but I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to stay connected. As they start this chapter of their lives, they need reassurance that they’ve made the right decision and that they have support.”
Wilbanks, who graduated with a business degree in 2009 and earned a master’s degree in higher education leadership in 2014, always shares some wisdom on what helped her to be successful in college and urges the freshmen to take advantage of the resources available to them and step outside their comfort zone.
“I feel like Mercer gave so much to me and helped me grow so much,” said Wilbanks, who writes five to eight letters each year. “I’m always looking for ways to encourage the next generations of Mercerians. Especially right now amid COVID-19, I think this freshman class may need a little extra encouragement.”
Hanson, who graduated from Mercer in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in engineering management, submits about 24 welcome letters each year for engineering majors and out-of-state students. She tells them about how she came to Mercer from out of state and didn’t know anyone, but the University became a second home to her.
The Sizemores met during orientation week at Mercer in 1966 and are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary (July 18) and 50th graduation anniversary this year. Sandy earned an English degree at Mercer, and Lamar holds degrees in history and law. Each summer, they each pen four or five welcome letters, with Lamar normally writing to pre-law students and Sandy to English majors.
“We remember very well what it’s like to be freshmen, to be on a new campus with new people and with your future ahead of you. I think we feel the kinship to those freshmen as we think back to our early days in our relationship,” Lamar said. “Mercer is still an important part of our life. I encourage them to make it a part of theirs and be a part of the Mercer family. It can become a family tradition, and it certainly has in our family.”
Lamar said he sometimes mentions in his letters how his family has 14 Bears. Sandy often writes about how she still feels connected to the University after all these years and has remained active in the Mercer community. She said it’s refreshing and fun to be connected and involved with college students.