At the end of the fall semester, I mentioned to one of my students that she would make a great peer mentor. At my college, we employ sophomores, juniors, and seniors to coach our students on all kinds of topics such as time management, dealing with changes in relationships, and staying organized. This student in particular demonstrated lots of leadership potential in the class and worked hard every week. She also had experienced a faulty start to college and was in my class in part to help her move from academic probation to good standing. She was well on her way to earning a 3.5 GPA for the semester. From my perspective, she had everything she needed to help other students work through their challenges, especially the “street cred” to show that anyone can bounce back from a bad semester.

When she stopped back by with the peer mentor application in hand, she asked me a question that startled me: “I need two letters of reference. Who should I ask?” I don’t mean I “gasped” at the question–it is pretty standard when I work with first-year college students–but I did stop, think, and realize that despite the fact that this student had pulled herself back from the brink of failure with what I consider extraordinary determination and poise, she didn’t see that she had anyone in her network that she could use for an on-campus job application.

Educators call this social capital, and it is important to the success of not only college students, but also people in the workforce. How many times have you heard “It’s not what you know, but who you know”? (My apologies to my junior high English teacher who would tell me it is “whom you know.”). And if your student isn’t keeping an eye on whom they are getting to know well in college, they should make a plan for this new year to do so.

I also know that networking effectively is not instinctive or easy for lots of introverted students (trust me, I was one of those students and still am a little reluctant to do so), but there are strategies that you can use to help your student develop a larger network in college that will serve them currently and in the future. Here are a few tips:

  • Encourage them to get to know the faculty. This is one of the most important and sometimes overlooked strategy because students fear looking “dumb” in front of professors. I challenge my students to get to know professors and their areas of expertise, tell them if they enjoy their class, and visit them during their office hours even if they don’t have a problem with understanding the material. As they get further into their major, they will have more opportunities to interact with professors who can help them with more than just a course. Many faculty lead internships and research projects, have connections at graduate schools, and work with business and industry.
  • Suggest they join a mentorship program. Many colleges have mentoring opportunities on campus. Some are focused on certain groups of students–e.g., first-generation or minority students–but others are open to anyone. Students can be mentees paired with upperclassmen or alumni or they can serve as a mentor themselves. Both roles can be incredibly helpful for expanding your student’s network.
  • Ask them about classmate connections. An often overlooked opportunity for networking is with fellow classmates or fellow members of an organization. While these connections may not have an immediate payoff if your student is looking for, they can be incredibly helpful in the long run.
  • Talk about the qualities of a good mentor. While all the above suggestions can help your student develop quality relationships, you may want to nudge them to find a specific person who can serve as a mentor. This person can be a family member or friend or someone in the community. A one-on-one relationship can have many benefits beyond college. If your student has identified who they could ask to mentor them, discuss what your student would want out of such a relationship and how much of a time commitment it would be.

As a parent who is also an educator, I have had the ability to mentor both of my kids regarding college, major, and career aspirations, but I also have coached them to find someone else, preferably more than one other person, that can get to know their goals and accomplishments so they can build the social capital they need to move about in the world with more support and direction. Be assured that the further they get into their major, the more the opportunities arise for them to make those kinds of connections; however, a little nudging, suggesting, discussing can help them realize how important it is.

For the student who wanted to be a peer mentor, I helped her identify two people on campus that she had worked with who could serve as references. She was pleased–and so was I.

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