Network As Net Worth: Increasing Access To Social Capital For Young People

By iMentor, Forbes

Research shows that anywhere from 70 to 85 percent of jobs are filled through networking. And others are filled before they are even posted. When we talk to young people about career aspirations, we often center that conversation on the academic and professional preparation that entails – the degrees they need, the certifications that are essential. But ultimately so much of our careers are shaped – and driven by –our social connections.

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It feels difficult in this moment to center connections as an essential component of career success when so many young people feel disconnected – from their schools, from their peers, from the futures they envisioned for themselves before the pandemic. At iMentor, our model harnesses the power of personal relationships to help students succeed. We partner with high schools in communities in which a majority of students served will be first-generation college graduates. We match them with college-educated mentors who they communicate with online once a week using curricular prompts and meet once a month virtually.

One of the driving factors in our work is the disparity that we see between what students aspire to in their education and what they expect to achieve. We ask this question of our students every year in our survey. And we consistently see that more than 95 percent of our students aspire to higher education, but only 67 percent believe that is the pathway they will ultimately choose. It is jarring to know that at just 16 or 17 years old, our young people are already questioning their ability to achieve their goals. And this has real-world consequences.

College enrollment is down historically, especially for students of color, undercutting the gains made over the last several years. College advisors across the country are grappling with how much harder it feels to motivate students to even apply. Students are questioning both the value and the feasibility of college. The student loan crisis, the lack of a “real college experience” as colleges balance safety with socializing, and the pressure students feel to financially support themselves now has made the conversation about career planning more urgent.

It is no longer enough to tell students that college is the place where they will “figure it out”. Students want to enter college with a more concrete understanding of how their degree will result in financial sustainability. According to a recent ECMC Report, high school students want more direct access to careers and direct pathways to achieving career success.

For iMentor students, direct access comes in the form of our mentors, hundreds of professionals whose experiences span numerous industries. In our 11th grade program, we talk about strengths-based mentoring and the importance of exploring careers. We want our mentors to help our young people connect their interests and skills to a variety of careers that they may never have thought about. And sometimes students do not think about certain careers because they do not see themselves represented.

So we talk to mentors about career stereotypes and the impact they can have. We introduce our students to concepts like social capital and soft skills. We ask our mentors to think about how they can leverage their networks to help their mentees develop their interests. So much of career choice –the process of aspirations and preferences –is formed early in our lives and is often the product of socioeconomic status, personality, and learning history.

We know that networks have real impact on career exposure and career ambitions. Some of us may have had a clear blueprint that led us to the career we are in now. Some of us may have fallen into our career choice. And others may still be figuring out. But regardless of where and how we landed in our current roles, we remember the conversations that shaped us, the advice that lingered, the casual connections that led to that next opportunity.

We teach our students that having a network of support is essential. No one succeeds alone. But young adults of colors are the least likely to have connections to people who can advance their careers.We believe that educational opportunities open up a world of possibilities. And in order for our young people to keep those possibilities alive, we have to support them in accessing networks that are essential to achieving their vision of success and happiness in the future.

Shaquinah Taylor Wright is the senior director of advising and post-secondary success at iMentor and an adjunct professor of college advising at Teachers College, Columbia University. She leads the vision and execution of iMentor’s college and career advising strategy. Shaquinah has been an advocate for capacity building and creating systems of support for young people to navigate the postsecondary process. She is a 2022 National College Attainment Network (NCAN) Leading for Equity Fellow.

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