Sophomore Rachel Ellis was seeking to enrich her campus experience when she went looking for a job during the last school year.

What she found was a window into the lives of alumni across the country and their memories of the university. And it’s all part of the Phonathon: a four-decade tradition that in its most recent annual drive generated more than $500,000 in pledges for Ball State.

“I was looking for a job that could extend my skills, and I liked that it was connected to Ball State in a big way.”

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A student is seen working during Phonathon last fall.

Taking part in the Phonathon is about more than raising money. Stuart Elmore and other “Cardinal Callers,” who collectively make as many as 200 calls a night, often swap stories with alumni about their love of Ball State.

It’s a fully automated phone hub at the Alumni Center staffed Sundays through Thursdays throughout the school year by students who collectively make 100 to 200 calls a night. The money raised can fund a donor’s specific request or go to a variety of broader funding needs, including colleges, departments, sports teams or the library. In a world where fundraising has many high-tech avenues, the Phonathon and its “Cardinal Callers” can stir passion and nostalgia among alumni and others with ties to Ball State.

It did the trick for Nicole Weaver.

“I received a call from a current student pursuing the same undergraduate degree, apparel merchandising, as me,” said Weaver, ’02. “It was great to hear her enthusiasm and hear about what was going on at Ball State.”

Before the mid-1970s, alumni groups kept the Phonathon going on a volunteer basis. But students got involved in 1974 and have led the effort for several decades. Most calls are brief, but others can be 10- to 15-minute conversations. The calls give Ellis a greater understanding of the university, its history and its robust alumni network.

Informational graphic conveys Phonathon statistics: 100 to 200 calls per night. Pledges last year raised $541,633. Student Kiara Turner raised $33,000 in pledgesShe says people often share their college experiences. Others are interested in her experience as a student and offer advice. Ellis, a photojournalism major from St. Louis, talked with one person who helped her network with a photographer at the Chicago Tribune.

“I can benefit from the job while benefitting Ball State,” she said. “It makes me fall in love more with where I’m at.”

Ellis draws parallels between her job and photojournalism classes. In both, she has to connect to a subject and communicate an idea.

“In life, in journalism and in this job, you have to be able to think on your feet and casually converse with someone,” said Ellis, who since she started has been promoted to a Phonathon supervisor. “It’s good practice to learn more about people in a 5-minute interview.”

Michelle Garland, senior director of annual giving for the Ball State University Foundation, hires students from a range of majors yet looks for certain characteristics.

“When interviewing students, I find that those with more of an outgoing personality, who are actively involved on campus and have a general knowledge of the university tend to be a good fit for the role,” she said. “Alumni ask a wide variety of questions, so when students are able to share their own experience, they maintain a stronger conversation and connection.”

Maggie Morgan, a senior acting major from Waterford, Michigan, fits those traits to a T.

“I’m super outgoing, so it seemed like a great position for me,” she said. “I’m able to talk to people about their days and update them on what’s going on here on campus.”

Garland said alumni often give positive feedback about their conversations with students, commenting about how they are articulate, kind and professional.

The benefit of the call is mutual. Alumni want to learn how their gifts make a difference and, by talking to students like Ellis and Morgan, they hear firsthand how donations big and small help advance the institution they hold dear.

“I find it rewarding, being a Cardinal Caller,” Morgan said, “I get to go home from work with a smile because I know I’m making a difference for so many people here at Ball State.”