5 Steps for Building & Strengthening Students’ Networks

Step 1. Take Stock: Getting to Know Who Your Students Know

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Guiding questions:

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My older brother’s mentor set the path for me and my siblings. A lot of times, that’s the way it works in families: you educate one and then all benefit.”


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    Schools and programs often leave deep reservoirs of social capital, and what researchers call “funds of knowledge,” on the table.

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    In fact, even students’ existing acquaintances can generate new, expanded opportunities.

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    Making assumptions about the composition of students' networks based on their demographics can backfire.

Dr. Helen Heinneman and Father Joe Appleyard didn’t just redirect my life—they filled in whole blanks of white space I wasn’t even seeing on the page and colored it in for me.”

Paul LeBlanc, President of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)

If you’re trying to teach students about the power of networks and social capital → Use relationship mapping to start the conversation from an asset-based perspective:

If you’re trying to increase students’ sense of belonging and access to support → Find out who students already trust:

If you’re trying to increase the likelihood that students mobilize their existing networks → Attach network mapping to personal goals and real-world stakes:

If you’re trying to expand students’ professional networks → Start with the employers students and their families already know:

If you’re working in a resource-scarce, human capital-scarce environment → Use relationship and networking mapping as a student project to identify latent resources:

  • Beyond 12 coaches college students to reflect on their existing support networks and how to maintain them.

    Beyond 12 is a nonprofit that offers virtual coaching to low-income, first-generation, and historically underrepresented students. The Beyond 12 curriculum includes a specific core content area focused on “Networking and Building Social Capital” in an effort to map who plays what roles across students’ networks. As part of this module, students fill in a chart detailing specific relationships in their lives with people who can help them accomplish their goals. They reflect on the help they receive from various individuals; how frequently they interact; how formal or informal their interactions are; and identifying good “next steps” to continue to strengthen those relationships. For more on the Beyond 12 approach, check out our Beyond 12 case study.

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    Evidence of impact
    Sample data collection strategy
  • Big Picture Learning asks students about their existing networks to generate and distribute local internship opportunities.

    Big Picture Learning, a national nonprofit that supports internship-based learning high schools, has designed a technology tool called ImBlaze to help schools manage work-based learning contacts and opportunities. But schools don’t just use ImBlaze as a productivity tool; at the start of their semester, Big Picture students are encouraged to upload their existing and new contacts that they have in local businesses through their families, communities, and other networks. From there, students across the school have visibility into the range of opportunities represented across their entire school community—not just limited to their existing, inherited networks. The tool also provides references and records on students’ previous experiences at various internship sites.

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    Evidence of impact
    Sample data collection strategy

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

Customize a plan
  • Search Institute’s Relationships Check Tool

  • Making Caring Common’s Virtual Relationship Mapping Strategy

  • RESCHOOL Colorado’s Learning Map

  • Connect Our Kids’ Family Connections Tool

  • Visible Network Labs’ PARTNER Platform

  • Loom’s Salesforce Map your relationships tool

  • Big Picture Learning’s ImBlaze internship management tool

  • CERES Institute’s Using Webs of Support Framework

  • Network Canvas

  • Connected Futures

  • nXu