Quarterly spotlight on students’ social capital: Talking to students about their networks

By Julia Freeland Fisher, Christensen Institute

Reprinted from the Christensen Institute’s newsletter 

Dear Friends,

How do you talk to students about deepening and expanding their networks?

This question comes up frequently in our work. Although this is certainly an area where more R&D would be beneficial, there are a few guiding principles and examples that we point people to.

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.”  

Secondly, whatever words you choose, how you talk to students about networks is equally important. Particularly in 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, wherein professional networks are 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 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), the 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 apply critical consciousness in reflecting 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 HBR on this topic as well. Check it out here.

Finally, educators don’t have to go it alone. Luckily, there’s a growing stock of curricula providers that schools and programs can use to teach students about the value inherent in their networks, and the skillsets and mindsets to build more connections to support their education and career goals. Providers like Career Launch and Social Capital Builders Inc. have created curricula 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.

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.

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