As a graduate assistant in Missouri State’s Office of Citizenship and Service Learning (CASL) I strongly believe in the merits of service learning. As a methodology, service learning has many inherent benefits. Students have access to opportunities through service learning typically not offered in traditional classes, such as hands on experience in the “real world”, active engagement in the surrounding community, the ability to test out a career path before graduating, and connecting with area professionals in related fields through networking.
That last point of networking is something that I’m coming to find is more and more important the further along I go, and knowing how to network is an extremely valuable asset. Figures vary but it’s estimated that approximately 40%-70% of jobs are filled through personal contacts. These numbers add credence to the old adage, “It’s not what you know but who you know.” Before dismissing this as mere cronyism or nepotism among industry insiders, it’s important to know that the majority of good hiring is done through referrals to managers from people that they trust and know personally. Networking is key to being one of these trusted contacts, and a placement through service learning with an area community partner can get your foot in the door of the field in which you wish to work. Being well connected increases your chances of being contacted regarding upcoming opportunities. Actively working to get your name out there and forge valuable relationships allows you to, much like Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, “make [your] own luck.”
One of the essentials to effective networking is developed relationships. A service learning placement can be where you start building these constructive relationships within the inner workings of your community partner, as well as any groups or people with which they regularly interact. Connections between related companies or groups can very well be what gets you an interview or job offer that you otherwise may never have encountered.
Social networking is something virtually all young people are familiar with, and this experience can actually be helpful to one’s networking in “real life.” Networking is inherently social and for those intimidated by that, the safety of service learning is a great way to start slowly by connecting with co-workers and supervisors at your community partner and then gradually building from there. Supplementing personal contact with digital contact through avenues like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn is a good way to slowly build your presence and raise your profile in a comfortable way.
Many community partners that CASL works with will host or be a part of events in the community to benefit various causes or showcase their work. Being part of planning such an event or attending such an event will provide many beneficial opportunities to network. Networking at an event is more than just mixing and mingling with potential new professional contacts. Having meaningful conversations about your field of interest or the outfit someone works for is the first step that should be followed up through either direct exchanging of information or connecting with them online through social media outlets. These multiple methods of contact increase your name recognition and help to foster the type of professional relationships you want. This “following up” is what takes mere mingling and turns it into networking. Showing up often, maintaining and making connections, and having valuable face-time with professionals in your field, will help you to build a network of helpful and mutually-supportive contacts that can provide you with many opportunities and solutions to problems in the future.
As a critical skill for success, networking is something students should strive to cultivate and start practicing early. We all interact within networks daily and a service learning placement could be the first step in channeling that every day social interaction into a professional asset that will serve you the rest of your professional life.
By Asher Allman, Graduate Assistant for Citizenship and Service-Learning