Students’ hidden networks: Relationship mapping as a strategy to build asset-based pathways

By Julia Freeland Fisher, The Christensen Institute

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To grow their students’ support and professional networks, schools frequently depend on hiring more staff on the margins, enlisting existing faculty and staff to take on additional responsibilities like mentoring and advising, or launching initiatives that recruit volunteers or alumni to engage in pro bono stints. These well-intended efforts to shore up and expand students’ networks are not all futile. But they are often institution-centric, rather than student-centric. These strategies risk burdening already exhausted faculty and staff, offering temporary help for relationships that benefit from consistency and familiarity, and stretching thin budgets even thinner.

These approaches not only threaten the mental health of staff and the long-term sustainability of programs, but also risk ignoring a whole stock of connections hiding in plain sight: the people students already know. Recognizing and respecting students’ inherent resources and cultural wealth is what this report refers to as an asset-based approach.

Luckily, a host of innovative organizations focused on more equitably building and maintaining students’ social capital are doing just that. This report describes the profound potential of these organizations’ approaches to mapping and mobilizing students’ existing social networks, and details emerging strategies and tools that schools should consider.

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