Step into the role of an educator, for just a moment. Many of us serve in this role each day (or at least, that’s what we tell our aunts and great-uncles over the holidays when they want to know what we’re up to), but humor me for just a second.
If there was something that you could be reasonably certain half your students would need to know upon leaving you, would you teach it? What about seven in ten? Or eight in ten? I’d imagine the higher that number goes, the more likely you are to want to include it in your lesson plans.
This notion was one of the first that came to mind as I read Paul Gordon Brown’s recent post about networking, and the high percentage of opportunities that arose from engaging in this critical practice for success in yes, student affairs, but also any field that doesn’t have formal placement (e.g. medicine):
When I reflect back on the jobs I have held and on the speaking and consulting engagements I have booked, almost all of them have come through personal connections I have made with others. Although I didn’t intentionally seek to create a strong network when I started as a new professional, I have nevertheless come to appreciate the fact that I took the time to create and maintain these connections.
Most other skills essential to professional success – resume and cover letter crafting, writing skills, and a broad base of knowledge – feel like a natural fit for the classroom, and we treat them as such. However, networking is of rising importance when finding our places professionally (in some circles, it may have even eclipsed some of those elements) and should be something students are equally competent in. But the fact of the matter is: we don’t teach people how. We need to. And if 50%-80% of our students will need these skills to be successful in their chosen pursuits, it’s irresponsible not to.
Networking isn’t a skill that comes naturally to most people, likely because of its stigma as inherently unnatural, shallow, and ill suited for most (especially introverts). But, like Paul, many have found ways to make it work without submitting to robotic interactions or alternating conversations about weather, appearance-based compliments, and obligatory exchange of business cards. And if we want to ensure that the students we work with have the tools to succeed in this increasingly essential professional success strategy, we have to help. I wish we had more space to have these conversations- in classrooms, internship and practicum courses, meetings with advisees, anywhere we can.
If it were up to me, there’d be an entire class on this- I believe it’s that important. However, I can settle for creating an abridged wishlist of the important elements (in this instance, I’m speaking with student affairs and higher education in mind; I’d hope these tips would be useful in other fields as well).
What would my wishlist for networking competence look like?
Overview of Conferences (Regional + National) in the Proposed Field of Study
There’s more to networking than major professional organizations and national conferences. There are professionals that may benefit more from regional networks, state associations, or knowledge communities and affinity groups based on ethnicity, functional area, or other areas of professional interest. If we are going to present support organizations as a key to networking success, I’d like to see a more nuanced conversation about what these organizations have to offer- allowing emerging professionals to select their affiliation from a full slate of options, and not perceptions of which one is “better” or “more prestigious.”
Examination of Virtual Spaces the Field Occupies
As Paul mentions in the post that inspired this one, there is tremendous networking power in online networks that bring together professionals that may not otherwise meet. And yes, I do mean meet- these relationships shouldn’t, and don’t have to, stay online- just like with romantic relationships that start online, they have to come out from behind screens sometime!
Are classroom conversations about how to meet people and connect including online spaces that exist to bring emerging and established professionals together? And if the instructors are unaware of these opportunities, how are students being made aware of them? Alongside larger organizations like NASPA and ACPA, communities like The Student Affairs Collective, Student Affairs First Years, and Golden Higher Ed could be equally impactful for new professionals.
Networking Out of Frame
By “out of frame,” I mean beyond the bounds of your degree. There’s a great wide world outside of higher education- by interacting in it through professional connections, two things can be achieved. First, we can build connections that allow us to approach challenges in our offices and on our campuses in new ways. Has an engineer, artist, financial analyst, or even professor already solved a problem that’s currently plaguing us? Without a connection to these people and an understanding of how they think, our work could feel incomplete.
Secondly, and arguably of more importance: connections outside our walls help us to understand the world where we’ll be sending the lion’s share of our students. Like it (philosophically) or not, we are preparing the majority of our students for an industry that we don’t work in. As such, we should be equipped with the tools to help them do something other than what we do. Is it exciting when students show potential for student affairs work? Of course. But if a student doesn’t want to do that, or is ill-suited to do so, we need to be able to provide more than encouragement when sending them off to do so. Seek out relationships that could be beneficial for you, but also beneficial in understanding the target audience that passes through our doorways, programs, and consciousness each day.
Rethink “It’s a small field.”
Let me first air a frustration: I don’t like the idea of the phrase “this is a small field” thrown around in a threatening manner. Most of the time it’s used in the same breath as an admonishment or warning about behavior or perspective. I believe any conversation about networking needs to first examine this phrase, how it’s used, and what we could elect for it to mean.
The fact of the matter is, the field is small because we make it small. That is to say, the “incidental” nature in which people find this work is driven by people. How many times have you heard someone say that a mentor, advisor, or other staff member identified their potential? Unlike fields like business, journalism, or even teaching, where aspirations far precede the time we spend with students, interest in student affairs is generated through experience with it. That means the people involved hold a disproportionate level of power over who pursues it.
With that said, this can be a good thing! Creating a combination of strong and weak ties (see Adam Grant’s outstanding Give and Take for more details on this principle) is easier when the degrees of separation are fewer- and in student affairs, these lines are short. Want to meet someone to learn more about their research interests or learn something that they’ve pioneered or perfected? The odds of knowing someone who knows them are high- and with good networking skills, the connections you make to these individuals can feel organic and genuine. My first wish would be for the status of a small field to be not a threat, but an asset.
How to Create These Spaces for Others
As a chronic creator, so much of me wants to include in this conversation about networking, discussions on how to create new spaces for networking if you’ve sought your own place in the field and haven’t yet found it. I think about the communities listed above, as well as the establishment of the Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education (S&CIHE) Knowledge Community, as outstanding examples of well-networked and thoughtful individuals, filling gaps that emerge within the field. In many ways, the creation of these spaces is the culmination of all the tips listed above- recognizing the power, and not the ominous nature, of networking; seeking out diverse opportunities to meet like-minded individuals; and combining the power of in-person and online networks.
What other tips would you share for those seeking to build strong networking skills, either those working alongside you or those you wish to influence?