Networking: Friend or Foe?

Networking. It’s a familiar buzz word in our student affairs world, as we are incited to “network” in countless settings: class, work, conferences, SUSDA events, the institution, the larger community, and, of course, online. And yet, what do we really mean when we talk about networking? There are both positive and negative associations that can be attached to the word, and if I’m being completely honest, my first reaction to it is a mental cringe. For me, networking has often been tied to forging connections for personal gain, such as scouting out those who may help us get a job, an internship, or even a date. Are there ways in which our concept of networking has been tainted by a sense of competition or superficiality? How can we ensure networking–a very necessary aspect of our field–occurs in productive ways that foster genuine interpersonal connections?

I believe it is easy for networking to take on a quantitative versus qualitative focus. Think about how important it is for many of those who engage in online social networking to “friend” every person they happen to encounter, to the point that a sizable portion of their online contacts are people they never even see in the real world. On a more professional scale, consider the myriad networking opportunities available to us as students and developing practitioners through organizations like NASPA, ACPA, and SU itself. We are served up events, conferences, webinars, fairs, and open houses galore, which sometimes is like going to a buffet: there’s lots of options, they’re all yummy, but do we really need ALL of them? I’ve been struggling with this lately, especially as a commuter student, working off-campus. The relative value of these opportunities, for me, is sometimes lost amidst the sheer quantity and frequency with which they occur. Recently, Dustin wrote a blog post discussing the time and care we devote to really getting to know those with whom we network, especially in a culture of fast, easy communication. I think this is a profound point to ponder, continuing through our journeys in student affairs, especially as the season of national, regional, and local conferences draws near. Do we aim for qualitative interactions with others? Or, do we (intentionally or not) find ourselves forming many relatively shallow connections?

I’ve heard from more than one source that the field of student development draws many folks who are more introverted than extroverted. This surprises me to hear, as it seems on the surface that the opposite is true, but it is also comforting, as I fall closer to the introverted side of the spectrum myself. However, it seems that many of our networking opportunities are inherently geared towards extroverts. In many ways, this is the nature of the beast and is simply a challenge people like me need to overcome. Nevertheless, I think it is crucial to, whenever possible, consider whether the networking opportunities we develop are conducive to a competitive atmosphere or a collaborative one. I think that some of the leaders in our program have done an admirable job of designing events like Preview Days, orientation, and the SUSDA retreat to be supportive of genuine connections and collaboration, while at the same time challenging us to step out of our comfort zones. (I have heard from previous SDAers that, especially with Preview Days, this has not always been the case.) Yet, I still think the pressure exists to seek out self-serving, transient relationships. How much does our success as developing professionals rely on competition between one another? Are introverts just losers in a survival of the fittest, or can we promote more organic ways to make connections?

I am interested to hear from those who attended the NASPA Regional Conference last week about the nature of the networking opportunities there. What characterized them? Were there personal strategies you employed to network effectively? Did you make meaningful or shallow connections? Was the atmosphere competitive or collaborative?

For anyone reading, what role does networking play in your life, and how do you define it?

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