OUS Northern Ireland Networks Officer Joby Mullens explores the success of one of the latest additions to the ever-expanding global alumni group network, OUS Northern Ireland, in the country’s bustling capital…
I’m sat in one of the many hip cafes in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter – the city’s dynamic cultural heart – on a chilly November afternoon, enjoying a coffee with OUS Northern Ireland Chairman Leona Coulter and Treasurer Sue Moore.
Hours before the group’s annual dinner, the excitement in the air is palpable as Sue and Leona proudly recount the remarkable rise of the fledgling group from its humble beginnings in mid 2012 to its now 160-strong membership and growing.
OUS Northern Ireland was formed by St Anne’s alumna Leona Coulter in mid 2012, after she noted the distinct absence of any alumni groups in Northern Ireland and contacted the Oxford Alumni Office to enquire about setting one up.
"....I anticipated there being 15 people in a pub but then all of a sudden there were 150 of us!"
From an initial meeting at Belfast Boat Club at the end of June that year, attended by a small number of alumni, the group soon established an 18-strong committee, including core schools outreach and events teams.
“This all really started out as I thought ‘why is there no group here in Belfast?’ – I thought there should be one and suddenly, after contacting the alumni office I found myself saying to my husband ‘I think I’m starting one!’, said Leona.
“It all happened quite quickly…. I anticipated there being 15 people in a pub but then all of a sudden there were 150 of us!”
The group’s inaugural event - a dinner at Queen’s University Belfast – followed in November and was attended by 70 alumni and guests.
OUS Northern Ireland's Annual Dinner at Belfast's Ulster Reform Club, November 2013
Sue was friends with Leona prior to the formation of the group and got involved after Leona invited her to join. Leona said that it was their mutual love of Oxford that spurred them along.
“We both loved Oxford so much and missed the atmosphere there and having conversations into the wee hours,” she added.
“It’s a wonderful place and while I’m very happy to be back in Belfast raising my family, there are aspects of Oxford that I miss.”
During 2013, the group has organised an impressive eight events, including a family-oriented screening of the Varsity Boat Race, a bus tour of Belfast in June to commemorate the 50th anniversary of renowned Belfast-born author CS Lewis’s death and a wine-tasting evening at a warehouse in the city’s dockside in September.
In May, the group also visited the private 400-acre Montalto Estate and Gardens in County Down for a tour and afternoon tea, which was attended by some 20 alumni.
“The event appealed to a different audience to our dinner so a lot of older people came along,” said award-winning freelance writer Sue, who recently won a Telegraph travel writing competition for an article she wrote on a day she spent in Rome during the Rome Marathon and Six Nations rugby.
“The majority of people are looking for formal events to replicate the Oxford atmosphere but there are those who go to everything are there is usually a lot of variety in those who turn up.”
Meanwhile, more than 20 students and freshers attended the group’s first schools outreach event at the city’s Campbell College in August. The group now hopes to build on this and encourage alumni in the Belfast area to return to their schools and share their experiences with students.
Leona, a freelance television producer and mother-of-three, said that the event was a resounding success.
“I think these types of events are one of the best things for freshers – they seem to find it really invaluable because often they don’t know anyone before they come to Oxford,” she said.
Leona added that the success of the group’s events in 2013 was in no small part due to her fellow committee members.
“Andrea [Events Co-ordinator] along with Sue, has worked so hard in organising events this year,” she said.
“…and John, our enthusiastic Schools Team Co-ordinator, has great ideas, passion and energy.”
Since meeting Sue and Leona, later that day the group successfully hosted their dinner at Belfast’s Ulster Reform Club. Taking on board feedback from the inaugural dinner, instead of having music, the committee arranged for a post-dinner lecture by celebrated local historian and broadcaster Dr Eamon Phoenix.
“People seem interested and are wanting things to happen – it’s not like we are having to drag them along!”
Dr Phoenix spoke in length to a rapt audience of some 60 alumni and guests on the subject of hidden Belfast, in particular the area around the Reform Club in the city centre.
“It was thrilling to track the story of Henry Joy McCracken, and the United Irishmen, while we sat just footsteps away from the house of his birth and the site of his execution,” said Sue, speaking after the event.
The group launched a Facebook page in January last year, largely to publicise its events programme, and it now has almost 50 members.
And they have recently created a LinkedIn page as a business networking opportunity for group members.
“We were quite interested in people finding out about one another – I imagined it more as ‘this is what we do and these are the services we offer’…as a way of us helping each other,” said Sue.
Looking to the year ahead, the group are now tentatively discussing plans for an opera trip, with more events to follow. They are also appealing for new alumni to join and help take the group forward with fresh enthusiasm and ideas.
And if the last 12 months is anything to go by, then it looks like 2014 could be another fruitful year for OUS Northern Ireland.
Sue said that the feedback they had received so far had been incredibly positive.
“People seem interested and are wanting things to happen – it’s not like we are having to drag them along!”, she added.
Leona added: “It’s been a really good year and we’ve proved that there is an appetite for a group and for people to come along to the types of events we organise."
To find out more about OUS Northern Ireland or to join the group, please email the group or visit their Facebook page.
Joby Mullens - Networks Officer, University of Oxford Alumni Office