Dr Peter Sutton is our College Alumni Engagement Manager, and part of the team that has created this year’s fantastic 450th Anniversary programme. In this week’s College Coffee Break, he talks about the ups and downs of managing alumni events during the current pandemic, all things ‘anniversary’ and finding novel ways to maintain a sense of community while we’re apart.

Dr Peter Sutton

 “I joined Jesus College in April 2019, having recently completed a doctorate in English at the University of St Andrews on the political and social appropriations of Ben Jonson in the Restoration and Eighteenth Century. Ever since I was young, I have had a passion for drama, performance, and history – acting out productions for any visiting relatives in our living room – and that love has never left me.  I now sing with both the Chapel Choir and local choir, Opus 48, as well as directing for the University’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society, for which I was secretary for two years as an undergraduate. I can’t wait to be inside a theatre again as they can be the most magical of places. I am also delighted that the 450th Anniversary Campaign has had such an exciting historical focus for which I have been able to devise the programme. We have got some exciting performance-based events coming up, so watch this space.

I think that I probably had one of the longest commutes of all Jesus College staff to begin with. Having left St Andrews, I was living in Staffordshire when I got the job, and that meant some very early starts to the working day! This wasn’t my first time in Oxford though as I took my undergraduate degree in English at St Hugh’s, so knew the north of the city really well. In fact, I’ve just discovered that I nearly crossed paths with our new College Chaplain Christopher Dingwall-Jones as he also read English at St Hugh’s, graduating the same year I matriculated.

I really enjoy my job as Alumni Engagement Manager, and have responsibility for maintaining that very special and precious sense of community that we have with our alumni. One of the main parts of my role is the programming and organisation of events, working alongside my brilliant colleague Rhiannon Lovell, who in addition to helping plan and deliver our events, also looks after College’s graduations – very important events indeed! In addition, I also work with our incredibly talented Social Media and Events Officer, Sophia Carlarne, on the content we share across our platforms. Our social media content has grown in prominence since the pandemic, as it has been one of our principal ways of connecting with alumni across the world, and we are delighted to have attracted lots more followers during this time. In addition to this, I also receive material for the Jesus College Record, including obituaries, which, whilst obviously sad, are also wonderful reminders of how much College means to our alumni throughout their lives, and what their time here leads them to achieve.

It wasn’t long after the visit of HRH Prince of Wales to College in early March last year, that the full extent of COVID-19 became a reality for the Development Team. On March 14, as part of the Restoration and Georgian themed events of the 2019-2020 year, we had organised an alumni trip to the Oxford Playhouse for around 40 guests – all excited to watch a new all-female adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Sadly, in the end, only around ten were able to join us as the overall uncertainty about the pandemic had increased. In the space of just nine days since the royal visit, where the hall was full to capacity, our awareness of the full impact of the virus and its risk to our health and wellbeing had changed everything. It has been a very testing time, especially for our students, and we are incredibly grateful for and touched by the readiness of our alumni to show their support and for their generosity.

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Even before the March 2020 lockdown, the team had been discussing the potential risks to the alumni events programme if COVID-19 became a pandemic. We knew that the only way to keep engaging with our alumni was to move online. Our first activity was the Alumni Challenge – a weekly competition run through our social media channels, with questions about our College history set by our wonderful archivist, Dr Robin Darwall-Smith. That was great fun, and also gave us the opportunity to support and promote small local businesses who donated prizes. In the autumn, we started hosting special digital events, such as Robin’s very popular talk on TE Lawrence and his time at Jesus.  This is probably one of my favourite events from the past year as it was so focused on Lawrence’s time at Jesus, and we had some great audience interaction, including from members of the TE Lawrence Society. Rhiannon is doing an amazing job of ensuring that all our online events, each with a slightly different format, run smoothly.

The Development Office began hosting 450th Anniversary Campaign events back in September 2018, with programmes that explored major chapters in our College history. For this most special of years, we are delighted to have worked with Professor Paulina Kewes to curate events focused on key strands such as ‘Celebrating the Elizabethan College’, which will allow us to interrogate and explore how the first Elizabethan age has shaped the second Elizabethan age we live in now. For the final months of the Campaign in 2022, we will turn our events focus to College’s future – our vision, our community, and our academic research in the 21st Century. In addition, we have also launched ‘Jesus College in 12 Objects’ – a digital exhibition that showcases some of the incredible objects from College’s collection. These include our founding Charter of 1571 and (below) a beautiful watch and signet ring believed to have been owned by Charles I’s widow, Henrietta Maria.

12 Objects - CHarles 1 watch

All of our 450th Anniversary events have been online so far, but that’s actually turned out to be a bonus.  We’re reaching a much wider audience through digital events – not just alumni, but our students, our staff, our Fellows and lecturers, and also the general public. We have already attracted audience members from 26 countries across six continents! That’s not to take away from the value and enjoyment of meeting in person, and in the future we will have a hybrid programme of online and in-person events.  Gaudies will return in-person, I promise, and we very much hope, all being well, to end our 450th year with some very special in-person events, as nothing beats the atmosphere of Hall when it is packed with people, enjoying a wonderful meal, and sharing memories of their College days.