The authentic Australian

Lea Sublett, Manager of KAUST Alumni Affairs, stands proudly with her team on the KAUST campus, from her left Nigel Clarkson, to her right Teemu Hentunen and Ziwei Fan, December 4, 2017. Photo by Hugh Gyetvai

- By David Murphy, KAUST News

When Lea Sublett, manager of the University's Alumni Affairs team, was in high school, all she wanted was a traditional holiday to somewhere like Disneyland, but her free-spirited father had other ideas. Rather than enjoying a "normal" family holiday like her classmates, the young Sublett often found herself in some far-flung locations like Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands in pursuit of her father's love of new and interesting frontiers.

The Sublett patriarch told his young daughter that everything she experienced would go towards building her character. Her parents were implanting in their daughter a love of travel, diverse cultures and more importantly a love of people—of meeting people and of engaging with them to learn about their cultures and hear their life stories.

From Toowoomba to Thuwal—via Melbourne, Dubai, Brisbane, Saigon and Canberra

Sublett's father, a New Yorker, also cultivated a curiosity about the world and its peoples—people that existed outside of her home city of Brisbane, Queensland, and it is a curiosity that still exists today. This desire to explore the world meant that Sublett was never going to be content with a regular day-to-day job. 

"My dad always wanted me to become a teacher, as he felt it was a safe option, but I wanted to be someone who did something different. At school, my focus was on becoming an international journalist. My father thought that this vision I had of traveling all around the world was something that might get me in trouble. Thankfully my mother encouraged me," she said.

"Because I grew up with a spirit of adventure, I wanted a career that offered more than '9 to 5.' I definitely didn't want to be a teacher! I went on to study journalism, but have ended up for most of my career working in universities (which made my father very proud and secretly happy, as he felt I'd chosen a safe and secure option). I've been lucky, as my career has given me a great mix of routine when I've needed it, as well as adventure. Universities are a wonderful hub of inspiration, creativity and innovation," Sublett emphasized.

"I've been all over the world with my job to meet with alumni in their home countries or cities, and I've loved seeing the world through their eyes. In alumni relations, you are engaging with people who have very different stories and very different cultural backgrounds and whose experience of the institution is filled with unforgettable memories," she added.

A history of alumni relations


Prior to joining KAUST, Sublett spent over 19 years in the field of alumni relations in her native Australia. She has worked with five Australian universities—The Australian National University (ANU), The University of QueenslandThe University of MelbourneThe University of Wollongong and The University of Southern Queensland, and with alumni who were spread far and wide.

A five-year stint with the Australian Government as an education consul based in Dubai (and with regional coverage across 15 countries in the Middle East and North Africa) gave her the opportunity of encouraging students from around the region to go and study in Australia's universities.

"One of my first major projects back in 2002 was working with Saudi Aramco to arrange one of their first visits to Australian universities, where they later sent some outstanding students," she recalls.

Throughout her career, she has found it difficult to explain what an alumni relations professional does. Sublett says that the role has evolved over the years, but what has remained consistent is the creation and maintenance of high-quality, mutually beneficial, lifelong relationships with alumni. Building relationships that in some way benefits alumni and the university.

"I've spent most of my career working in alumni relations, but have never really been able to define what it is I do. I remember at my farewell speech at ANU, where I talked about how my team and I had increased engagement with alumni from 27 percent to 50 percent in just over four years. Reporting on that progress every semester to the ANU president was a critical piece of my work, but at the heart of it were the people—the alumni—and ensuring there were opportunities for them to re-engage with a university they simply loved. One thing in common the world over with alumni professionals is that we are all driven by the fact that we love people, connecting them to each other and the university and ensuring their stories are heard," Sublett noted.

"My philosophy is that the alumni engagement process is lifelong and starts from the moment a future student thinks 'KAUST.' We hope that our alumni—through their career stories and professional outcomes—will inspire future students to enroll at KAUST. For this reason, I work a lot with my colleagues in the divisions, Student Services, Admissions and Recruitment. The Alumni Affairs team also tries to get to as many student activities as possible to ensure we're meeting students who are our future alumni," she outlined.

No barriers

One of the main differences between KAUST and her previous university roles is living in the community alongside students. The lack of an interaction barrier between the students, staff and researchers at KAUST was in Sublett's eyes one of the main drawcards about her role.

"The open and collaborative environment found on campus is of paramount importance to the building of lasting relationships with students," she said.

"I do boot camp with students, I run into students at Tamimi and around campus—and due to this proximity, you get to know them and their families on a personal level," she noted.

Pride of place

Lea Sublett, manager of Alumni Affairs; Mona Alsomali (Ph.D. ’16), Dow; Hussain Shibli (M.S. ‘13), KAA-CARE; and Mustafa Mousa (Ph.D. ’16, M.S. ’11), CEO and co-founder of Sadeem, speak during an Alumni Panel as part of the University's Career Fair on October 26. Photo by Asharaf Kannearil.

According to Sublett, a sense of place is paramount to a student enjoying and appreciating time at university. It's something that Australian and international alumni spoke a lot about in her previous job at ANU, as well as at KAUST. This strong sense of place, community and a pride in that place can often engender an infectious positivity from both current and former students towards their university.

"Both our Saudi and international alumni who have been away from KAUST for some time always talk about the fact that the campus community is beautiful—that it's beside the Red Sea, that it's a vibrant community and that the learning spaces are like no other. In all my years working in alumni relations, place has been a really significant part of the university experience," she said.

This sense of "place" can create a very fixed or flexible opinion of what lies ahead for an overseas student. From discussion with alumni, Sublett has found that some former students arrived at KAUST with a fixed idea of what they planned to do, but research facilities and the environment quickly led to a divergence in prior opinions.

"I've met alumni who have talked about the fact that they came here with a very fixed opinion on what they were going to experience academically. They came to KAUST as burgeoning scientists, and their curiosity and access to faculty, facilities and environment (like the Red Sea) has led to many new opportunities. It's these opportunities that have paved the way for really interesting careers that many alumni talk about with a sense of gratitude to KAUST," Sublett added.

You're only as good as your team

Student and alumni relations at KAUST are supported by a team of colleagues and departments within Graduate Affairs. These colleagues of Sublett are dedicated to providing the greatest support, advice, care, mentorship and opportunities for both past and present students.

"My colleagues across Graduate Affairs are amazing and have welcomed strong collaboration and partnership. They've seen that it's a priority for me and for Alumni Affairs to more closely support the student experience in any way we can," she noted.

Creating a lasting authentic connection

Lea Sublett, manager of Alumni Affairs, speaking with KAUST alumnus Hussain Shibli (M.S. ‘13) during this year's University's Career Fair Alumni Panel. Photo by Asharaf Kannearil.

From an alumni relations perspective, Sublett believes that at KAUST, she and her colleagues have the opportunity to build something truly special and unique.

"Fundamentally, I'm serving alumni and coming up with all sorts of reasons as to why I authentically believe they should keep in touch with KAUST for the rest of their lives," she said.

"If I was to come up with a way to measure the impact of our work in Alumni Affairs, it would be related to alumni inspiring a generation of future students through their own stories, experiences or in a volunteer capacity as a student recruiter. Alumni talk inspirationally about their experiences at KAUST wherever they are in the Kingdom or around the world, and that makes future students very aware of the same opportunities. I know some of our students are here as a result of the positive feedback from alumni they've spoken to," Sublett added.

A passion for people

One thing that is clearly evident when Sublett speaks is her passion for her work in alumni relations.

"Yes, passion is a word that I use a lot, but I don't use it lightly. I think passion relates to absolutely loving what I do. Being at KAUST enables me to pursue this passion for my work in alumni relations, as well as in building and being part of a community. The one thing that underpins this passion is believing there are many reasons why our alumni should continue their relationship with KAUST once they leave," Sublett said.

"My job is about ensuring—in a very authentic way—that there's an opportunity out there for every single alum to engage or re-connect. It's more than just about what alumni can do for KAUST—it's what we can continue to do for them," she concluded.

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