by Marquis Taylor, CEO of Coaching4Change
As you head off to college, you’ll be given a lot of good advice: how to pack (roll each piece of clothing to fit more), how to study (visit the academic support center to boost your performance), how to make friends (leave your dorm room door open to welcome conversations), and how to advocate for yourself (go to professors’ office hours to deepen your understanding and relationships). In all the college advice out there, there’s one area that is often saved for the end of college, but it is something I adamantly believe you should focus on at the beginning of your college career, even as you’re choosing a college—connecting with the alumni network.
Of course, during your college years, you will learn about subjects such as history, statistics, business, and other topics and skills of your choosing, but most students aren’t taking advantage of one of the most important offerings of their education—alumni relationships. In fact, I tell students that the alumni office should be one of their first stops on campus when visiting or when they arrive as new students.
Wait a minute, you may say. Hold up. This seems upside down and counterintuitive. Shouldn’t the alumni office be your last stop on campus before you leave? Isn’t that office for after graduation? Or, at the very least, for folks about to graduate? Yes, is the answer to all those questions. But it should also be where you begin your college career.
You’ve probably heard the phrase networking thrown about a lot, and the idea may seem intimidating. What is a network? How do you network? Why network? Don’t let the phrase throw you. It’s really very simple. Networking is about building one-on-one relationships. That’s it. Establishing these relationships may feel daunting when you choose a college, but each college has a ready-made network for you to tap into. That network is made up very importantly of alumni. Find it. Explore it. Build on it.
So, as soon as you can, investigate how a college offers you opportunities to have conversations with alums. Some do it better than others. These connections, for all students but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are critical to setting yourself up for success. Does the school encourage you to reach out to alums in fields you are considering? If you go to the alumni office and ask to speak to people working in a certain field, can they connect you?
These one-on-one conversations with alums are a great way to explore different career paths, especially for students whose circles may not encompass people working in those areas. They can help you during the application process as you decide which college to attend, during your college years as you are deciding on majors and professions, and during your post-college years as you look for employment, build your career, and consider career changes. What if you don’t have a fundraiser in your circle? Or an accountant, banker, or retail store manager? Or a sportscaster, lawyer, or doctor? Or the head of a human resources department, movie director, or writer? If you have a good alumni office, you have those people in your circle.
How can you make good decisions without information? These folks can give you that: What is a certain career like? What kind of lifestyle does it bring? What experiences can you expect? What are the important trends? Who are the movers and shakers? What do you need to move ahead in a certain field? What are the professional opportunities out there? What path did they follow, and would they recommend it?
Many colleges tout their networking events. While these events can be helpful, many students leave without connecting with professionals. They shy away from introducing themselves or gravitate toward other students. To make these events worthwhile, you must make direct contact with a person, a connection that you can follow up with a one-on-one conversation, but often because of the structure of these events, it isn’t easy to do that.
I advise students that while large events are informational, connecting to alumni through the alumni office is the best way to make these one-on-one relationships. Right off the bat, you have a common interest and conversation starter: the college, its traditions, sports teams, professors, clubs, and activities. Most alums want to share their experiences with students at or from their alma maters.
So, yes, when visiting schools, take in the sports facilities, the dining hall, and the dorms. And when you arrive on campus as a new student, yes, you should check out the library, the coffee spots, and the clubs. But don’t forget one of the most important resources a college has to offer—the alumni office.
Marquis Taylor is CEO of C4C, a 12-year-old model mentoring organization in Massachusetts and Rhode Island matching college students of color with high school and elementary school students. Interested in becoming a mentor during your college years? C4C is actively recruiting new mentors. Learn more at c4cinc.org.