This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
When I was growing up, my parents would often tell me that I needed to go to college to have an opportunity at a better life. That made sense to me. My parents didn’t graduate from high school and worked service jobs. College was my opportunity to help my family become financially stable and realize the American Dream.
I was fortunate to get a full-tuition scholarship to Pomona College, one of the premier liberal arts colleges in the nation. Things changed once I got to college; I hit a wall. I had focused all of my time on getting into college and never really thought about how to navigate college.
If you find yourself in this place, trust me, you are not alone. This is where I found the power and value of networks.
After my first semester, I wanted to go home and get away from Pomona. While many of my friends talked about working in a research lab or interning at a bank or tech company, I was happy to know that I survived my first semester of college and wanted to stay at home all summer. Never in my life had I gotten C’s before, and it was difficult to understand why I was struggling in college.
Midway through my second semester, I picked up the phone and called one of my college advisors. I vented to him about how difficult college courses were and how I didn’t know how to look for a summer opportunity. In a whim, he put me in contact with one of his co-workers. I worked with her to discuss how to find a research opportunity for the summer and how to ask my professors for help with my courses.
I needed that extra help and guidance in college.
College shifts the responsibility of education from the teacher and institution to the student. You are in charge of educating yourself and making sure that you are getting what you need. You are no longer meeting with your teachers daily and building that relationship with them.
People ask me how is it that I was able to go from an inner-city high school to intern at Google and the White House, complete a Fulbright fellowship, and now work for FWD.us. I was able to get these opportunities through networking and developing relationships with others.
Here are some tips I’ve learned about networking:
- Be genuine and sincere. Most people react positively and want to help when you are genuine and sincere. Always send thank-you notes/emails after you meet a person. You want to make sure that you form relationships with people.
- Do your research. You should be strategic about how you network. LinkedIn and Google are great resources to find out more about individuals.
- Have a purpose for your conversations. It is a lot easier to talk to individuals if you know why you are talking to them and how they can help you get to you next goal.
At the end of the day, human interaction is still the most effective way of communication. Even if this is not your strong suit, go out there and strike a simple conversation with people. It is a great skill to have in the real world.
It goes without saying that building a network is difficult. It takes initiative and leaving your comfort zone to do it. I can’t tell you how many times I have had conversations with individuals and I’m thinking, “This is awkward.” When you ask people for help, always keep in mind that the worse thing a person can tell you is no. If they do, you move on. You will not get every opportunity. But you will certainly never get the opportunity that you never applied or asked for. So go be bold and reach out to people.
Here are places you can reach out to during your time in college (I recommend you reach out during your freshman year):
- Career Development Office — They will be an extremely useful resource as you look for summer opportunities.
- Fellowship Office — There are lots of fellowship opportunities that pay for students to travel, research, etc. Your college will have an online listing of fellowship opportunities. Read about those opportunities early so you know what the application requirements and deadlines are.
- Student groups on campus — This is a great way to make friends and discover what you are interested in.
- Professors – Get to know at least one professor every year of college. You will need professors for advice and recommendations. Go to the professor’s office hours.
- Alumni network — One of the best ways to find a summer opportunity (and a job) is by reaching out to people who graduated from your college.
- Outside groups — There are many groups that are looking to help first-generation students graduate college and achieve their career goals. These groups are a great way to meet students from all over the country and see what their college experience is like.
Here are a few examples of programs you should look into (Note: This list is not exhaustive; look online for more opportunities):
- Management Leadership for Tomorrow
- Harvard Summer Venture in Management Program
- Scholars for Educational Opportunity
- Law and Public Policy: Public Policy & International Affairs (PPIA) Fellowship Program
- Council on Legal Education Opportunity
- CBC and CHCU Congressional Internships
- Medical School and Research: Summer Medical and Dental Education Program
- Howard Hughes Medical Center
- Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Summer Institute
- MIT Summer Research Program