5 Steps for Building & Strengthening Students’ Networks

Step 3. Expand Networks to Expand Opportunities: Helping Students Forge New Connections

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Guiding questions:

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    How does your program currently gather information on students’ individual career interests? How often do you check back on how those interests have evolved or shifted?

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    Based on those interests, what kinds of professional opportunities are you hoping students will have access to down the line?

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    What expertise, experiences, and professions are currently represented in students’ families and extended networks?

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    What new connections does your approach currently leave “to chance” that you want to make sure all students have access to?

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    How often are new professional connections and mentors in students’ lives opening their own Rolodexes to broker additional connections on students’ behalf?

Meaningful metrics

Leveraging students’ existing networks and empowering them to grow their social capital is critical. Since social capital is such an important component of our theory of change, we take a multifaceted approach to measuring it.”

Aimee Eubanks Davis, Founder & CEO, Braven

Different people with varied backgrounds, expertise, and insights can provide students with a wide range of options for discovering opportunities, exploring interests, and accessing career options. Programs aiming to expand career options or help graduates secure high-quality jobs should ensure alignment between students’ goals and the diversity of relationships put within their reach. Institutions committed to expanding students networks in service of expanding opportunities should measure:

  • The number of industry connections beyond school that a student forges over the course of a program
  • The attributes of those with whom relationships are formed (such as career expertise, background, and willingness to open up their own networks to students)
  • Students’ access to a diversity of networks, particularly across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds
  • Students’ ability to name connections across or within specific professional industries

What the research says

  • 1

    Networks shape career exposure, which in turn shapes career ambitions. But broad exposure to diverse careers isn’t equally distributed.

    America is witnessing an alarming rate of what researchers have dubbed “lost Einsteins”: young people who show promising potential but who, due to lack of exposure to innovation, appear far less likely to pursue careers as inventors. As a result, children from high-income (top 1%) families are ten times more likely to become inventors as those from below-median income families, based largely on exposure rather than aptitude.

  • 2

    Young people believe connections and social capital are essential for navigating their career journeys—but often struggle to build them.

    In a qualitative study of students’ experiences in career pathways programs, researchers found that young people know they can’t progress on their career journeys alone. But many described striving and struggling to form connections that offer the social capital needed to navigate entry into work opportunities and to advance their work-related goals.

  • 3

    When it comes to job-getting, there’s a surprising strength in weak ties.

    Weak ties, which are by definition more plentiful in our lives, are more likely to open up new opportunities or information beyond what stronger ties can. In fact, researchers have found that jobseekers are more likely to find out about job opportunities through their weak tie networks. However, a single strong tie can prove more valuable “at the margin.” In other words, people tend to have far more weak ties—acquaintances, former colleagues, friends of friends—than they do strong ties, which increases the chances that more opportunities flow through weak-tie networks. But stronger ties may be more willing to help.

  • 4

    Even brief chats with industry experts can make a difference.

    According to research in the UK, participation in career talks with employee volunteers can change students’ attitudes toward education, influence their future plans and subject choices, motivate them to study harder, and support an improvement in academic attainment. There may be a financial benefit as well. Researchers at OECD found that when 14-year-old students engaged in short, school-mediated career talks with outside speakers, there was a 0.8% increase in wages for each talk and a 1.6% increase if students thought the talk was “very useful.”

Note: Open the PDF to see a complete list of research citations.

Strategies from the field

We examined what value our students could add and how to present industry partners a lower-lift option to authentically engage with and benefit from students.”

Natasha Morrison, Director of Real World Learning, DaVinci Schools and DVX

Asking students about their existing relationships and networks can paint a clearer picture of what relationships students are actually forging in their day-to-day lives, and the different roles those relationships play. The following strategies can help you "take stock" of whom your students know on a regular basis and better leverage those connections over the course of students’ academic and professional journeys:

Click on the green text to see more.

If you’re trying to recruit new volunteers or mentors into students' lives → Look at the networks your students and community already possess, but may not be activating:

Diversifying students’ connections can often mean recruiting new “outsiders.” But the first step to finding those new connections is understanding whom students already know but may not be viewing as valuable resources or connections to help them achieve their goals. For example, a student may view a neighbor as a friend of her parents, but might not know what that neighbor does for a living. In addition, by leveraging the “taking stock” strategies in Step 1, you can start to surface relationships in students’ networks whom other students in your program could benefit from getting to know, in turn encouraging students to share their network resources with one another.

If you’re brokering new connections on students’ behalf → Plant seeds of trust early on by surfacing (sometimes hidden) similarities:

The notion of homophily, more commonly thought of as “Birds of a feather flock together,” describes the fact that people are more likely to trust others who they perceive to be similar to them. By asking students and new connections to share aspects of their lives and identify areas of common interest, experience, or taste (even if those are not obvious at first), you can increase the likelihood that trust is forged. Innovative programs like Climb Hire often use storytelling exercises for students to share their own stories and frame those stories to prospective employers. They also provide students with a list of possible questions that they can ask when conversing with prospective employers to purposefully surface homophily or shared experiences and interests.

If your students experience a negative interaction with a new connection → Debrief the relationship to mitigate long-term harm:

Relationships may go badly for a whole host of reasons, but you can take steps to ensure a negative relationship does not cause lasting harm to students’ sense of self-worth and academic ability. Ensure that you have someone in place to help the student process what happened in that negative interaction or relationship. For example, mentoring programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters Massachusetts Bay have developed protocols for how staff can engage in practices that promote healthy “closure” of mentor-mentee relationships, including acknowledging emotions, reflecting on memories, and considering how the mentee grew or changed in the course of the relationship. MENTOR’s director of research and evaluation, Mike Garringer also offers helpful guidance on implementing positive “closure” practices.

If your students know exactly what they want to do and where they want to work→ Cultivate a few very strong ties:

If students are far along on their educational journey and have specific goals, high-touch, enduring mentor connections can increase the likelihood of getting hired. For example, Big Picture Learning’s approach to high-touch mentoring in the course of internship-based learning appears to be paying off in graduates’ job prospects. In a study of three of their high schools’ alumni outcomes, 88% of those who did not enroll in college secured full-time employment—with 74% reporting that this employment was facilitated through a mentor or contact from one of their internships.

If your students are still exploring their interests or if your program is aiming to expand students’ options long-term → Invest in larger, more diverse weak-tie networks:

If students are still exploring possibilities, then programs should think about ways to multiply the number of connections to people working across an array of industries. This expands students' access to opportunities and their sense of possible future selves. Broad, diverse networks with high levels of structural diversity expand students’ optionality down the line. Opening up these connections can include everything from job shadows to career chats to short client projects. When doing so, come up with clear protocols by which students can “get back in touch” with people they meet, so that those weak ties remain accessible afterward.

If you’re working with cohorts of students focused on new opportunities or job-getting → Build a culture and infrastructure in which peers can offer information and advice to one another:

Many career-exposure and experience programs rely heavily on staff to train and support students. But students and near peers can also train and support one another if there is a culture of social support established early on, and if there are protocols and infrastructure tools to promote information sharing.

If you’re inviting guest speakers, community members, or alumni into the classroom or other volunteer-based programming → Structure these visits as relationship-building opportunities, rather than one-off events:

Every time a “new” person comes into contact with your students, frame that exchange to both visitors and students as an opportunity for forging connections. Work to ensure that guest speakers hail from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences that reflect the student population you serve. Try to structure two-way conversations where students can share something about themselves. Encourage guest speakers to reflect with students on how relationships helped them accomplish their goals. Create secure avenues by which students can get back in touch by re-engaging guest speakers on future projects or lessons where their expertise is relevant. For example, CommunityShare helps educators in K–12 invite community members into classrooms, often creating enduring relationships between students and guests. For postsecondary institutions, tools like Riipen help faculty integrate working professionals into projects and coursework, in turn exposing students to real-world projects and connections.

If you're struggling to scale internship-based learning experiences → Experiment with shorter, smaller-scale experiences, but measure expanded connections:

Many programs are focused on expanding career opportunities through internships. Although internships are critical onramps to jobs, they are difficult to scale and don’t always yield strong networks. Explore shorter dosage opportunities for career exploration and experience, such as micro-internships, short client projects, and capstone projects as alternative routes to putting professional skills, feedback, and connections within reach for students. For example, Parker Dewey is an online marketplace offering brief, paid work experiences to college students.

If you’re investing in skill building and network building in your program → Design feedback, transcripts, and portfolios to expand and document who knows what your students know:

Brokering new networks is a powerful way to expand opportunity, but part of the power of networks is making more people aware of students’ potential, passions, and skill sets. Consider how to ensure that students can show what they know when interacting with new connections, and consider capturing this information in your LMS or CRM tools as well.

Program spotlights

  • DVX offers shorter project consults, rather than longer internships, with the goal of scaling students’ professional networks and experiences.

    Da Vinci Extension (DVX) is a hybrid college in Hawthorne, California, which includes work-based learning as a core feature of its model. As enrollment grew, DVX found it could rely on only three to five local companies to provide high-quality, full-semester, paid internships. To expand opportunities, “project consults“ emerged. Smaller groups of DVX students (typically four to six) form teams based on their career interests and engage in real-world projects with industry clients over a six- to eight-week period. Students are expected to take over the many moving parts of client and project management. Preparation and planning for DVX’s full-time educators and for clients were not as onerous. Unlike full-fledged internships, industry partners don’t always have to seek approval from higher-ups to embark on a consultancy. And students who are working while attending DVX didn't have to quit their jobs to engage in a project consultancy. Thanks to this shift, it’s currently partnering with over 20 local companies on project consults. Read more here.

    Evidence of impact

    Between 2017-2020, 83% of all DVX students either persisted or earned a degree.

    Sample data collection strategy

    DVX administers a student survey after each project consult, soliciting feedback including:

    • Rate your communication with your industry client (1-4 scale)
    • I feel more prepared to enter the workplace after this experience (strongly disagree to strongly agree)
    • Were you provided with all the resources and support needed to complete your deliverables?
  • Basta’s infrastructure and staffing model empower peers to expand opportunities for one another.

    Basta helps first-generation college students of color navigate the job search process. The organization has carefully designed opportunities for students to exchange their job search information with one another through a variety of channels. Basta uses Slack to host industry-specific discussions where students can trade interview tips, job opportunities, and industry-relevant news with one another. The program strengthens these near-peer relationships by identifying and codifying tasks that near peers can perform in lieu of its full-time, paid Career Success Managers. For example, Basta enlists recent alumni of the program to serve as resume and cover letter-writing coaches, with alumni leveraging their own experience to help students tell their stories to employers. For more on Basta’s approach, check out our Basta case study.

    Evidence of impact

    80% of Basta fellows secured a career-pathway job within six months of graduating.

    Sample data collection strategy

    Basta frequently surveys participants on the relationships they are forging in the course of the program and their attitudes toward network building, including items such as:

    • I’ve developed one or more relationships...that I intend to continue beyond my participation in the program
    • I feel comfortable building relationships in an informal networking setting
    • Participating in Basta has increased my confidence in my ability to build and leverage a professional network

Putting it into practice

Who do your students want to connect with? What industries or individuals have you already brokered partnerships with? How can you better track and broker connections based on your students’ interests? Download our guided worksheet to expand your students’ networks.

Download our guided worksheet to keep track of your progress while going through the playbook.

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