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Discovering your career, Student Events

Networking with a purpose, no career experience required

Why, how, and who you should be talking to right now.

Think the only way to network is to go to a crowded event and try to make small talk? Good news: there are many ways to network, and all of them benefit you. In Handshake’s recent live event, Networking with a purpose, our panelists shared strategies for how to make networking work for you, and why you should get started right away, even if you don’t know what your career path will be.

The speakers:

  • Avalon Fenster, aka InternshipGirl
  • Ernesto Sosa, Sr Manager – Early Talent Programs & University Relations, Comcast
  • Katina Raines, Employer Relations Coordinator, Georgia State University
  • Cassidy Wilson, student at University of Tampa

Here is a condensed version of the conversation with our panelists’ best tips and takeaways.

What’s your best definition of networking, and where can you start?

Katina: Networking is basically meeting new people with shared professional interests. It can be both formal (at networking events) and informal (like talking to peers). Start with your student colleagues in classes and student orgs. When companies come to your school, do your research and go to those events. Don’t just come to sessions with big name companies: you never know where you will make a connection.

How can networking help you learn more about different career paths?

Cassie: Going into freshman year, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I kept asking people, How am I going to pick a major? I don’t know what I'm passionate about! I made it my goal to explore and talk to people in different industries and that helped me narrow it down, and also see how various interests can fit into a career. I took something away even if I knew their career path wasn't for me. It took me two years but now I have a much better idea.

Avalon: I see this often: people think that they shouldn’t network because they don't know what their passions or interests are. That’s precisely why you should be networking!

Ernesto: Similarly, every internship also teaches you about the type of manager, type of peers, types of tasks that you want and don’t want to do. Even if you don’t enjoy it, you learn something from it.

What would you say to someone who feels they don’t have enough experience to network?

Katina: There’s no such thing! Start as quickly as possible. Start at home. Start at high school.

Keep in mind that networking is not about an exchange: you don’t have to have to offer something immediately. It’s ok to be curious, and honest about the fact that you’re just starting to explore career options.

What are your tips for networking as an introvert?

Ernesto: I’m 98% introvert, but I have learned that in my job I need to be a different type of person. In 15 years, I have learned how to ‘act’ extroverted, but also be more comfortable in these situations. But if you’re just starting out, it can be very hard to put yourself into these high pressure situations and feel comfortable. I recommend bringing a friend to events or career fairs who’s more extroverted and who can help break the ice.

Avalon: At the college level, you don’t need to talk to senior leaders. You can get a lot of valuable info from peers and in your community, and it’s less intimidating to start those conversations.

What kind of people should you strive to meet?

Cassie: I don’t care about their position, I care more about their experience. It’s even better if they’ve worked in multiple roles and companies because they bring a wider perspective. I’ve talked to the president of Busch Gardens, I’ve talked to the VP of Operations at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the VP of Ticket Operations at Tampa Bay Lightning. And I don’t want to work in sports or own a theme park! But I always took something valuable away from those conversations.

My approach is, I want to find out about your role and what you do, but also about you as a person. Networking is not a transaction, it’s a relationship. You can’t go into with the mindset of “I want an internship, so I’ll network and hopefully get an internship.” Once you get to know people, the opportunities will come with time. So all the people I talk to, I try to open up and be honest about the fact that I’m still exploring what I want to do. And they’d give me advice, like, “It sounds like you’d be interested in marketing, let me introduce you to my colleague in that department.” That’s when your network really starts to expand.

Avalon: Having networked a lot, people can really tell when you’re going into a conversation just to get a referral, or just to say that you know them. It’s much better to go in with the mindset of trying to build an authentic relationship, and that gives a much better impression. Keep in mind that you are not networking with just one person, but their whole network, so building trust through networking is incredibly important.

Ernesto: Networking is not even about who you know: it’s about who knows you. This is why you can network with anyone, no matter their level in the organization.

How can I request to chat with a recruiter or hiring manager?

Ernesto: Be genuine in your initial message. If it’s a cookie cutter message, if it looks copy-pasted, it will most likely be deleted. Also, keep in mind that if you are applying to an open position, and you reach out to a hiring manager, they may decline your request not because you sent a bad message, but because we can’t show favoritism in the hiring process. Make sure you network before the positions are open.

Avalon: I always remind students that “no’s” and silence are a natural part of networking, but don’t be discouraged by that.

How do you keep track of the people you meet and info you learn?

Cassie: I made an Excel spreadsheet with the name and business of the person I talked to, plus notes about our conversation and when I’m planning to follow up. Some relationships will be a one-time conversation, and that’s ok, but it’ll be a stronger connection if you try to connect with them as a person and keep track of what's going on in their lives. I send a message every month or every other month to check in, say hello, or ask a question, and it’s not awkward because we know each other. Also, I don’t know what it is about being a college student, but people really want to see you succeed, and they notice when you’re stepping above and beyond to make an effort.

Final words of advice?

Cassie: It’s not a transaction, it's a relationship. You just have to start somewhere. It’s a skill and mindset of how to approach people that gets stronger over time.

Ernesto: Be thankful, be humble.

Avalon: Your network is your net worth.

Follow Handshake on Instagram and TikTok for more career advice and to find out about future events. Our upcoming events can be found here.

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