- Alex Kong & Halliki Voolma
Reflections on the First and Next Fifteen Years of the GCAA
While all Gates Cambridge Scholars’ time as students at the University of Cambridge will come to an end, the completion of their degree signifies a permanent status as members of the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association (GCAA). Since the scholarship was established in 2001, the GCAA has grown to more than 1,700 alumni around the world, some of whom have gone on to become bestselling authors, accomplished entrepreneurs and business owners, government leaders, civil society practitioners, researchers and renowned artists. Their work covers all seven continents and expands further still from the International Space Station to the expanses of the universe that humankind has not yet reached.
“Place” has played a central role in defining the development of the GCAA as it seeks to foster a sense of belonging and build a collective legacy spanning locations around the world and online spaces. The association was established in 2007 and has shifted dramatically in scope and remit since then. Early work established the foundation for a community that could continue to bring alumni together through common interests and locations and the shared goal of improving the lives of others. This work supported alumni in finding their place in the world post-Cambridge while remaining connected to one another. Social and professional events were hosted to bring communities together, and an avenue to give back was paved through the Gates Cambridge Ambassador Programme: an initiative to inform prospective applicants about the scholarship.
The first decade of the GCAA established platforms for alumni to communicate and gather in person, celebrating past friendships and connections and making new ones. In the past five years, the GCAA Board has sustained these activities while continuing to broaden its reach, both geographically and in the variety of programming. Old traditions persevered, and new ones were created. The annual Gates Cambridge Memorial Weekend was developed to honor the lives and continued impact of alumni who have passed away, including Drs. Lauren Zeitels and Silvia Breu. GCAA Collaborative Grants were launched to provide alumni outside the Board with funding to develop programming, resulting in opportunities for alumni and scholars to learn and connect in London, Mumbai, and online.
The Global Personal Professional Development program, which provides virtual opportunities for alumni to learn skills and to hear about specific career and life experiences, was fortuitously established early in the pandemic. Its creation came from a long-held recognition that in-person events alone were not enough to meaningfully sustain connections for the large proportion of alumni not based in major cities. This program has been particularly valuable as the Board’s efforts shifted completely online in 2020-21 for the first time in GCAA’s history. Amid the uncertainty of when our community might reconvene in person, we deepened our engagement with alumni worldwide and strengthened our collaboration with the Gates Cambridge Scholars’ Council through online programming ranging from small events to the Day of Research, which in 2021 was themed The Next 20 Years: Global Challenges of the Future. Scholars and alumni gathered online to share their research and reflections on the environment and migration, global justice and democracy, and technology and artificial intelligence. While the enormity of these challenges can feel overwhelming, our alumni are well-placed to address them.
The pandemic has driven home the importance of both bringing alumni together in the same place physically and offering enriching online programming. Moreover, it became clear that there is a need and appetite for global and inter-cohort community-building. The Board has for instance been piloting an online platform that could serve as a virtual community base for alumni to connect. In October 2021 we hosted a hybrid community celebration of the Gates Cambridge 20th Anniversary where speakers from the first to the latest cohorts and Trust team members told the story of the development of the community over the past two decades.
Global community-building also involves reflecting on and expanding the places and people that GCAA activities reach. In 2021, the GCAA Board appointed its first Director of Membership for Africa, Dr. Kofi Boakye, and for Latin America and the Caribbean, Dr. Andrea Cabrero Vilatela. These long-overdue appointments came with the recognition that a commitment to greater diversity and inclusion in the GCAA demanded Board-level representation and acknowledgement that in-person events in a subset of the world were not sufficient to engage a community representing 111 countries. We are grateful for the work that these directors have done so far to further engage alumni in and from these regions, and we are committed to continuing to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion through community meetings and programming for alumni and outreach initiatives to those who may apply to the scholarship and one day join our association.
Looking back on the first fifteen years of the GCAA, it is only natural to consider what the next fifteen years will and should hold. Already, the near future is exciting. For the first time in the GCAA Board’s history, the Co-Chairs will both be non-US alumni, as Dr. Sanjana Mehta takes on a Co-Chair position in May. A recent online outreach event for prospective Gates Cambridge applicants in Africa drew more than 100 attendees. In-person events are in the works in Africa, Europe, and the east and west coast of the US, with more to come. This summer, alumni and scholars are invited to the one place that connects us all for an exciting weekend of social and professional activities in Cambridge on 23-24 July.
Looking ahead, we look forward to all of the aspects that make serving this community, in collaboration with the Gates Cambridge Trust and Scholars’ Council, a delight and honor: meeting old friends and making new ones; having thoughtful, interdisciplinary conversations; and continuing to grow as we all consider how we can best embody the values of the scholarship. We look forward to seeing and celebrating all that you—our current and future alumni—do in your lives and careers.
Alex Kong  is a PhD student in the Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins University and Co-Chair of the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association.
Halliki Voolma  develops EU gender equality policy at the European Commission. She is a competitive ballroom dancer and Co-Chair of the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association Board.