How do you talk to students about their networks?

By Julia Freeland Fisher, Reprinted from The Christensen Institute

How do you talk to students about social capital? If you want students to deepen and expand their networks, what messages and experiences increase the likelihood that they’ll feel confident and inspired to do so?

These questions come up frequently in our fieldwork. Although this is certainly an area where more R&D would benefit the field, there are a few guiding principles and examples that we point people to. Here are the top three:

1. Words matter. 

First off, words matter. Some recent research suggests that students prefer the term “connections” to “networks” or “social capital.” According to a 2020 report published by Goodwin Simon Strategic Research and Wonder For Good, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Equitable Futures team, the word “connections” appears to message test best among Black and Hispanic young people and young people from households with lower incomes: an important finding considering that it’s these young people who may benefit the most from the economic opportunities provided by these connections. As the researchers describe, different phrases conjure very different connotations:

“… young people desire real relationships and friendships, and in that context, they feel that “connections” are more likely to be real and deep. By contrast, “networks” are perceived as superficial and transactional. Most youth participants have never heard the phrase social capital and, in the absence of a concrete understanding of its meaning, they fill in the gaps in ways that undermine its positive intent. Even when participants were taught the meaning of social capital, the term itself was not sticky. One problematic interpretation of the phrase social capital is that the term monetizes relationships, which implies that these relationships are not based on trust, mutuality, or personal affinity.”  

Others in the field, like e-mentoring provider iCouldBe that work hard to integrate youth voice in their approach, have likewise found that the term “connections” resonates best. That’s prompted them to dub one of their latest product updates, a visual of students’ networks accrued over the course of the curriculum, a “connections map.”

2. Framing matters. 

Secondly, whatever words you choose, how you talk to students about networks is equally important.

Particularly among efforts to build more equitable career pathways, talking about social capital with students of color and students from low-income households can quickly become a deficit-based conversation. Professional networks are too often framed as something students need and don’t have.

But leading innovators in the field deliberately flip that script. According to Eve Shapiro, chief knowledge officer at the college success nonprofit Beyond 12, it’s best to start the conversation about networks by urging students to reflect on the connections that have helped get them to where they are, and the people whom they have helped and supported as well. Beyond 12 then connects students’ existing off-campus experiences and expertise to the sorts of activities they might benefit from on campus. “That way, students can understand the work of network-building in education as akin to what they have already done,” Shapiro said. For Shapiro, the larger aim of the exercise is to “destigmatize and normalize” the acts of network-building and help-seeking that coaches then urge students to pursue in college.

Others in the field are taking a similar tack, while also integrating critical consciousness into how they engage in conversations about professional networking. For example, according to Katherine Hanson, director of decision science at New York City-based Opportunity Network (OppNet), her organization’s curriculum includes reflections aimed at offering students agency in how they adapt to different educational and professional contexts.

“Ultimately your goal is not to code switch but to know your desired industry’s norms and then decide how and whether to engage with those professionalism norms,” said Hanson. To that end, OppNet’s coaches work with high school and college students from low-income households to reflect on the ways in which professionalism norms “are determined by those with historical and structural power,” said Hanson. “Those norms are unspoken but nonetheless rewarded and your reward depends on your personal proximity to historical and structural power.” Hanson’s colleagues AiLun Ku and Ray Reyes recently published a great article in Harvard Business Review on this topic as well. Check it out here.

It bears noting that many promising models like Beyond 12 and OppNet pair these conversations about students’ existing networks and networking “norms” with relationship maps to make the invisible networks in students’ lives visible. For a list of sample prompts for educators and staff to use when leading young people through this exercise, check out researchers Shannon Varga and Jon Zaff’s overview of how to get the most out of relationship mapping.

3. Experience matters.

Finally, learning about networks in the abstract only gets you so far. Talking about the power of social capital should be paired with opportunities to practice building it. Particularly for schools and educators looking to ensure that students’ existing relationships are recognized and valued, an experiential approach to teaching students about networks can shift the concept of networking from “meeting new people” to having new conversations with people they already know, and trust.

Luckily, when it comes to creating those experiences, educators don’t have to go it alone. There’s a growing stock of curricula providers that schools and programs can use to teach students about the value inherent in their networks through network-building activities and lessons. Providers like Career Launch and Social Capital Builders Inc. have built curriculum and training to help high schools, postsecondary institutions, and workforce organizations teach students about mobilizing new and existing connections. Another organization, Connected Futures, founded by leading mentoring researchers, offers a set of free, asynchronous modules on building support networks, tailored to middle, high school, and college students.

What do approaches like these share? All of them not only outline the role that connections can play in personal and professional success, but also prompt students to engage with their existing networks and reach out to new people. In other words, the work is not just to talk about social capital but to ensure that learning about social capital is both asset-based and experiential. In turn, schools can arm students with the skillsets and mindsets to build more connections to support their education and career goals long-term.

Are you developing new and effective strategies to introduce the notion of social capital to your students? If so, please share!

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