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Wake Forest University builds novel, robust alumni and student app on AWS

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For current and prospective students, an institution’s alumni network is one of its most powerful selling points. At a time when public sentiment toward the value of a degree is dropping, the more that institutions can do to emphasize the power and reach of their communities, the better they will fare in attracting students and helping them succeed. For those who have already graduated, connecting with an active alumni network can help accelerate careers, create connections in new locations, and even bring them back to their alma mater for further study when it’s the right time to invest in new skills.

For many institutions, public social networks have provided an easy gathering place for community development. However, as institutions look to build more bespoke experiences that engage individuals from across their alumni network, custom applications can help them create curated environments where alumni and students can interact more directly.

Wake Forest University (WFU) is a leading private university in the US, ranked among the top 30 national universities by U.S. News & World Report for 27 consecutive years. With close to 9,000 enrolled students and almost 7,000 faculty and staff, the campus in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is a thriving learning environment. Add in more than 82,000 degree recipients across all 50 US states and 103 foreign countries, and the broader WFU community is vast and growing. To make the most of this diverse community, university leaders want to create connections between individuals across graduating classes, disciplines, and geographies. This post highlights how WFU’s IT teams used Amazon Web Services (AWS) to build a solution that brings the whole community closer.

WakeNetwork: A platform that extends the circle of inclusion to the whole WFU family

Like many leading universities and colleges, WFU’s alumni network is spread across the globe. Some alumni stay and work in the community and at the institution, some return for additional degrees, and some live and work miles across the country or the world. Connecting alumni and current students, as well as the broader WFU family (including parents, donors, and other institutional supporters), requires building an application that can handle a diverse set of stakeholders. To solve these challenges the advancement and alumni team designed WakeNetwork, a solution built with AWS that provides users with the ability to:

  • Easily search and connect with anyone in the entire directory of users (WFU students, alumni, faculty, staff, and donors) using various filters such as type of user, employment, or location.
  • View currently enrolled students and parents of students (permission-based).
  • Review university and scholarship donor information.
  • Provide a payment mechanism for donations, scholarship contributions, and event registrations.
  • Enable students to thank donors directly upon receiving scholarship funds.

The application interacts directly with WFU’s most critical alumni technology solutions, including the Blackbaud customer relationship management (CRM) system, and the institution’s identity authentication solution.

For adaptability and scalability, the WFU development team designed the core business logic to reside within individual AWS Lambda functions, closely linked to custom code in the Blackbaud CRM system that elaborates on this logic. This approach allows for simple expansion, distinct failure containment, and sustained application availability.

The triggers from Lambda drive data interactions between the application and various third-party systems. Integrating with Blackbaud offers a comprehensive WFU directory, encompassing alumni, current students, and faculty/staff details. A third-party payment gateway handles donor payments, while Lambda also fuels search capabilities and student gratitude expressions for scholarship donors. This orchestration results in a seamless, efficient, and user-friendly WakeNetwork experience.

Building on AWS

Harnessing AWS serverless services and established third-party systems, the development team adeptly addressed the task of crafting a contemporary, accessible, social web app that seamlessly integrates with the university’s existing technologies, encompassing the entire WFU community. From scratch, the team constructed a novel university application, incorporating facets of the preexisting Blackbaud CRM system, payment processing platform, and Slack-linked notifications.

Figure 1. System architecture diagram of WakeNetwork, the solution described in this post. The diagram outlines data flows and AWS services used in the application. The major components are AWS Amplify, Amazon Cognito, Amazon API Gateway, AWS Lambda, Amazon CloudSearch, Amazon DynamoDB, AWS Secrets Manager, Amazon Simple Email Service, Amazon Simple Notification Service, and the AWS Serverless Application Model.

The WFU IT team created an application that allows a variety of users to engage and interact across the alumni and current student network. As illustrated in the architecture diagram in Figure 1, the application includes:

1. User authentication:

a. WFU community members log into WakeNetwork using their WFU credentials.

b. AWS Amplify is used to manage the authentication process in the React application. The React application provides a front-end interface for WakeNetwork users and handles the integration between Amazon Cognito and Google for seamless user login.

2. API Gateway and Lambda functions: REST → SOAP → REST

a. Amazon API Gateway handles user actions (for example, search user, scholarship info, donations) and triggers corresponding Lambda functions.

b. Lambda functions—where core business logic is embedded—act as intermediaries to convert REST requests to SOAP for Blackbaud CRM communication and vice versa.

c. SOAP requests, originating from users through API Gateway, are sent to Blackbaud CRM for processing.

d. Responses from Blackbaud CRM, in SOAP format, are converted to REST and returned to the React UI for viewing.

3. WakeNetwork helper services:

a. User actions in the React UI trigger WakeNetwork helper services, including AWS Secrets Manager, Amazon Simple Email Service (Amazon SES), and Amazon Simple Notification Service (Amazon SNS).

b. Amazon SNS is used to generate Slack messages, facilitating seamless communication within the development team.

4. Fuzzy search with Amazon CloudSearch:

a. Users can perform fuzzy searches directly from CloudSearch domains as documents, enabling efficient name-based searches and presenting relevant results in the UI.

5. DynamoDB for static data:

a. Amazon DynamoDB is used to store static code tables data for quick and simple access to information such as states or countries.

6. WFU development with AWS SAM:

a. The WFU development team follows the AWS Serverless Application Model (AWS SAM) and well-architected DevOps methodologies to continually update and improve WakeNetwork.

7. Blackbaud CRM integration and CRUD operations:

a. Blackbaud CRM interfaces directly with API Gateway and the Lambda functions to implement create, read, update, delete (CRUD) operations directly against DynamoDB.

Impacting community engagement through innovative solutions

WakeNetwork stands as an indispensable tool, fortifying the bond between students, alumni, and the university itself. Its design, centered around user needs, combines interactive features, abundant resources, and unwavering commitment to accessibility to craft an experience that is all-encompassing and enriching.

As users recurrently engage—through event registrations, scholarship thank-you notes, or searches for fellow WFU affiliates—WakeNetwork serves its dual role of fostering engagement and ensuring the accuracy and precision of information. In this tandem, it seamlessly facilitates both the preservation of strong ties and the upkeep of precise data.

Visit AWS Cloud for Higher Education to learn more and connect with an AWS higher education expert.

Contributing author: Josh Badal, solutions architect, AWS

Jake Summers

Jake Summers

Jake Summers is a senior software engineer at Wake Forest University. He harnesses a decade-plus of experience to drive innovations in academic software while emphasizing leadership, user-centric design, and cutting-edge technologies.

Dan Buettner

Dan Buettner

Dan is a solutions architect at Amazon Web Services (AWS) and specializes in architecting cloud solutions for higher education customers. With 20-plus years of experience, he enjoys working with customers to map the right technology to their business outcomes and transform ideas into solutions.

Danielle Rowdy

Danielle Rowdy

Dr. Danielle Rowdy (née Yardy) leads US higher education and academic research strategy at Amazon Web Services (AWS). She works with higher education leaders to improve their institutions' resilience and enable innovation across their teaching, research, and community development missions. Prior to AWS, she led best practices research, technology strategy advisory services, and product development at a leading education consultancy.

Sharon Hartsell

Sharon Hartsell

Sharon Hartsell is a software engineer at Wake Forest University. She focuses on delivering user-friendly digital experiences to both internal and external users.