5 Steps for Building & Strengthening Students’ Networks

By Julia Freeland Fisher and Mahnaz Charania – Published May 5, 2021 by the Christensen InstituteSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

For students, social capital is defined as relationships and networks that have the potential to guide and connect them to career paths. In this report, the Christensen Institute outlines five steps for K-12, postsecondary, and nonprofit leadership to utilize in the implementation of programs that measure and improve students’ social capital. Examples of active student networking programs will be highlighted in this summary. 

Step 1: Measuring Students’ Existing Networks
To start with, institutions need to gather information about students’ existing “strong” and “weak” relationship ties. Strong ties, known by sociologists as “close relationships defined by high levels of time investment, emotional intimacy, trust, and reciprocity,” and weak ties being “relationships characterized by relatively less time, emotional intimacy, and reciprocity (as compared to strong ties)” are both integral to developing career connections and opportunities for students. 

For small institutions and schools, exercises such as relationship mapping, where staff identify students who may be at academic or personal risk based on a lack of trusting relationships, are easy to implement and promote early intervention for those who need access to social capital the most. 

To understand the broader landscape of student networks, asset mapping, a tool that has been used by social workers for decades, can identify and categorize individual student relationships across a range of factors. An example of an effective asset mapping tool is the Social Network Map. Developed by researchers Elizabeth Tracy of Case Western University and James Whittaker of the University of Washington, the map measures the “structure and quality” of student relationships with family, peers, friends, and co-workers. 

Nonprofit Network Mapping
According to the Christensen Institute, one program that has leveraged and maintained existing student relationships is Beyond 12, “a non-profit that offers virtual coaching to low-income, first generation, and historically underrepresented students.” As part of their curriculum, students chart out a detailed map of relationships with people in their lives that can help them accomplish professional goals. Further, “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 strengthening those relationships.” In addition, Beyond 12 coaches track student growth by evaluating their on-campus networks. With the support of the program, students are expected to have a campus advocate or mentor, three peers who can serve as references, and at least one study group with high-performing peers. To date, “85% of students whom Beyond 12 has coached for four years have either graduated or are still enrolled in college.” 

Step 2: Shoring Up Support Networks for All Students
For a web of support to be resilient and effective, it must contain at least one especially strong relationship. Previous research from the Christensen Institute has shown a web of support is more supportive and resilient “if the members of that web know one another, particularly for academically at-risk students or those dealing with adverse life experiences.” Programs and strategies committed to shoring up support networks should measure: 

  • The number of peers and adults a student turns to for different supports.
  • The sources of supportive relationships formed (including whether a student met someone through an existing relationship or a specific mentor) and how those individuals are connected to each other and the student.
  • A student’s level of comfort in seeking, activating, and mobilizing support from individuals in their network.

Networking Training Course and Coaching
Connected Scholars, “a research-informed course designed to meet the needs of high schools, colleges, and universities interested in implementing a mentoring program for its students,” aims to empower low-income students with the practice and skills needed to build their own social networks. Over a two-day comprehensive training workshop, students learn the value of building social capital to achieve life goals, how to build social support networks, how to identify mentors in their existing networks, how to develop relationships with potential mentors, and help-recruiting and networking skills. To evaluate students’ networking acumen, the course asks students a list of questions such as: 

  • Have you introduced yourself to support staff and professors?
  • Have you met with professors and support staff to discuss your goals and interests?
  • Have you reached out to professionals in a career or interest area?
  • Have you got to know at least one professor well?
  • Have you asked a professor for support or career advice? 

Based on a Connected Scholar’s case study examining the training’s effectiveness for individuals enrolled in the Big Brothers and Sisters of Eastern Missouri, students gained valuable experience on how to build social connections with faculty, students, and campus resources in a community college system. Scaffolded networking processes like guided meetings with academic and financial aid advisors helped students gain self-advocacy skills. In addition, group discussions about the college transition allowed students to hear older peers’ first year of college experiences. 

Step 3: Help Students Expand Networks Beyond Education to Industry
To align quality career outcomes with postsecondary programs, students need access to a diversity of relationships that can assist their professional goals. Institutions implementing career networking support programs should measure:

  • The number of industry connections beyond school that a student forges over the course of a program.
  • The attributes of those with whom relationships are formed (such as career expertise, background, and willingness to open up their own networks to students).
  • Students’ access to a diversity of networks, particularly across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • Students’ ability to name connections across or within specific professional industries.

When it comes to getting a job, weak social ties “are more likely to open up new opportunities or information beyond what stronger ties can.” According to research published in the American Journal of Sociology as far back as 1973, individuals are more likely to learn about new job opportunities through weak-tie networks. However, a single strong-tie relationship is valuable for individuals “at the margins,” as they tend to offer more help than weak-tie relationships. By increasing the number of weak-tie relationships (acquaintances, former colleagues, friends of friends) and ensuring a strong-tie relationship, individuals are likely to have more job opportunities. 

Work-Based Learning Model
Da Vinci Extension (DVX) is a hybrid college in Hawthorne, California that offers “work-based learning as a core feature of its model.” DVX partners with local companies “to provide high-quality, full-semester, paid internships.” To connect students with industry opportunities, DVX developed a “project consult” course design where groups of four to six students “form teams based on their career interests and engage in real-world projects with industry clients over a six- to eight-week period.” A benefit of this design is that does not require as much preparation and planning as a full-fledged internship. Industry partners do not have to “seek approval from higher-ups to embark on a consultancy,” and students do not have to make a commitment that requires them leaving their current job. With the popularity of the program, DVX is currently partnering with over 20 local companies on project consults.

Step 4: Leverage Ed-Tech to Expand Students’ Relationships
Technology-enabled databases and virtual interfacing “can be efficient tools for finding, forging, and storing weak-ties that still offer new information and opportunities.” For example, tools such as multimodal online connections that allow for video interfacing between students, faculty, staff, and industry partners, can help forge relationships and expand networking access. To evaluate ed-tech tools effectiveness institutions should measure: 

  • The number and type of new relationships forged through ed-tech tools.
  • Students’ ability to document and track the growth of these relationships. 
  • Students’ access and ability to re-engage with the individuals they connect with through technology.
  • The security and privacy of students’ personal information. 

Online Mentoring
iCouldBe, an online e-mentoring platform with advanced safety and security features, connects predominantly low-income high school classrooms with career mentors. Mentors interact one-on-one with students in the classroom setting and offer guidance to each student based on their “unique personal, academic and career interests, and post-secondary goals.” In addition, iCouldBe offers students online activities that aid them in identifying and forging connections with potential mentors based on their interests. Students then keep a record of all connections made from the program in their online network maps using the iCouldBe app. The program has been proven to increase low-income students’ access to mentors. “63% of the mentees reported that prior to the program they had natural mentors (in their offline lives). After the program, that percentage grew to 81%.” 

Step 5: Build Long-Lasting Networks for Students
Without maintenance, relationships decay over time. According to Roberts and Dunbar, “both strong and weak ties weaken over time without opportunities to stay connected.” To maintain networks, the Christensen institute recommends institutions continue engagement with program alumni, embed skill building into community-building activities, and employ specific technology solutions that interact around particular industry topics and skills. To evaluate student network sustainability, institutions should measure: 

  • The number of friendships and other connections a student chooses to spend time with outside of the program or school.
  • The degree of student trust in and satisfaction with existing relationships.
  • Students’ relationship skills, including the ability to engage or re-engage with individuals in their network. 

Peer Coaching Program
COOP “is a non-profit that helps Black, Latinx, low-income, and first-generation college graduates overcome underemployment.” For each cohort of 16 individuals enrolled in COOP, four mentors, known as Captains, “work collaboratively to guide their cohorts through the 200-hour COOP experience.” Captains, alumni of COOP, “serve as part-time, near-peer coaches, receiving a modest $1,500 stipend.” Also, many Captains choose to volunteer their time to coach new enrollees in the program. In addition to stipends, COOP alumni can receive benefits such as referral bonuses, marketable managerial and leadership experience, and access to COOP community events. According to their website, the median income of COOP participants increases from $15,000 to $65,000 over three years in the program.  

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