TIAA: A Mission to Serve

By Chris Vlahos, Guest Writer

Six members of the Fall 2015 MGM class arrived on campus this August with something in addition to the Thunderbird Affinity Program scholarship – an award from the Thunderbird Independent Alumni Association (TIAA) and designation as a TIAA Scholar. The question is, what does this mean and what is TIAA?

logoTIAA was founded in 2013 as an organization “by alumni, for alumni,” dedicated to preserving the Thunderbird culture, mystique, network for graduates worldwide, and serving as a much-needed alumni voice. This was established as an alumni-based association fully funded by its members; major TIAA decisions are put to the members for a vote, and TIAA board members are selected and approved by members.

TIAA in Budapest: Photo with Colleen Bell, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary (Photo Courtesy Chris Vlahos)
TIAA in Budapest: Photo with Colleen Bell, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary (Photo Courtesy Chris Vlahos)

The Thunderbird alumni community recognized the need for an independent association that would provide a collective voice in the affairs of the School and serve as an effective platform for professional alumni-to-alumni interaction. To this end, TIAA is independent of the school, which allows representation of alumni views, interests and perspectives.  While TIAA collaborates with the Thunderbird wherever possible, it remains a separate entity focused on enriching each member’s professional growth.

A major part of TIAA’s mission is to serve future alumni by welcoming them to the community and providing an array of services that enhance their campus experience. The TIAA Scholars program, introduced this year as a means to help promote enrollment to Thunderbird (and is combined with the school’s affinity scholarship), is just one of a number of student-related initiatives that includes:

  • Matching sponsorship raising $20,040 for the Thunderbird Emerging Markets Laboratory (TEM Lab) in partnership with the 2015 graduating class gift for students to participate in global development and business projects.
  • Sponsorship of various programs such as the TEDxYouth@Glendale conference, developed by students, and the 2014 Thunderbird Entrepreneurship Network (TEN) Business Plan Competition.
  • Mentorship and networking opportunities with TIAA members whether in Arizona or around the world.
TIAA in Budapest: Social Event (Photo courtesy Chris Vlahos)
TIAA in Budapest: Social Event (Photo courtesy Chris Vlahos)

Thunderbird students are also invited to participate on TIAA’s monthly Community Calls that involve T-birds directly into the Thunderbird conversation. The Community Calls provide information on TIAA initiatives and generate ideas to ensure the long-term success of Thunderbird as a leading global management institution. “I am excited to be part of the TIAA,” said TIAA Scholar, Dan Zlaket ’16, “and to witness first hand the strategies in place to promote student engagement and alumni connections.”

Dan joined fellow Fall 2015 TIAA Scholars Heath Dowers, Tash Kovacs, Kevin Roos, Jake Strickler and Cedric Zumba. Additionally, a broader TIAA team pulled together to help Cedric when it became apparent that he might not get from the Congo to Thunderbird in time to start classes: TIAA member, Esther Bobbin Gertin ‘12, ran a funding campaign to get Cedric to class on time, and TIAA staff member, Jenn Demoney, picked Cedric up at the airport and helped him acclimate quickly.

TIAA is invested in the success and well being of today’s students, because once they graduate into the alumni network they will have the ability to play a vital role within the Thunderbird community of graduates by influencing and supporting students that follow them. This is why one of TIAA’s goals is to help students with their eventual transition to the alumni world.

TAA Budapest Group
TIAA in Budapest (Photo courtesy Chris Vlahos)

TIAA is creating events, surveying fellow alumni for input on TIAA’s development, providing alumni representation to the School or developing the online community for T-birds to connect, alumni are the core of TIAA. This is embodied by TIAA’s unique professional networking events around the world. These events – combining a mix of culture, education and networking opportunities specifically for T-bird alumni – have been held in Baden-Baden, Budapest, Hong Kong, Houston and Shanghai, with the latest event taking place October 16-18 in Mexico City (

While the dust continues to settle as a result of the ASU partnership, alumni are looking to TIAA to help maintain the strength of the Thunderbird brand and preserve the unique culture that has made Thunderbird a special place.

“I love Thunderbird. I feel so passionate about maintaining its integrity for my children and their children, that I believe TIAA will help us as a school by demonstrating the excitement alums have for building each other up and helping each other grow into the future,” said Lenora Peppers Greene ’02, Managing Director of Kick-Start Marketing in Austin, Texas, and Co-Chair of the TIAA Marketing & Communications Committee. “We look forward to welcoming each new generation of T-birds into the alumni network and to TIAA.”

Christopher J. Vlahos is the Executive Director of the Thunderbird Independent Alumni Association. To find out more check-out their website