Working Your Networks

When I finished my service as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) member in 2017, I hated the concept of networking. At the time, I envisioned networking as a process of chatting people up to leverage their connections and knowledge for my own gain. When I thought of networking, I imagined rotating through a room full of strangers, making connections quickly and insincerely. I left the Cedar Rapids Public Library—where I served as a VISTA member—with many friendships and long-lasting connections. Even if I don’t speak to those colleagues on a daily basis anymore, I still keep up with their lives and cheer on their work from Iowa City. 

Photo of a crowded networking event from a high angle
The Product School via Unsplash

Fast forward to the summer of 2022: I’m working at the Multicultural Development Center of Iowa (MDCI) and spend my time thinking about careers outside of academia. My old nemesis, networking, has come back to haunt me again. My networks inside academia might have some overlap with other career paths, but the platforms and methods through which those networks are maintained differ widely. Initially, I found this completely disheartening. After years of building an academic network—something graduate students are repeatedly encouraged to do—I have to build a new one? 

Without my internship at MDCI, my mindset might have remained this way for much longer. Instead, something happened recently during my internship that made me rethink networking. When my site supervisor at MDCI told me he wanted to look at how to build the organization’s capacity, it knocked some sedimented memories loose. I hadn’t thought much about capacity building since 2017, simply because I hadn’t needed to. But then I remembered: AmeriCorps VISTAs are meant to build capacity at their organizations. It is quite literally their main job description. So, I asked my supervisor if MDCI had looked at applying for an AmeriCorps VISTA to assist the organization. The question sparked a long conversation about the VISTA program, application process, and benefits of having a VISTA. I realized that although I had plenty firsthand experience about working as a VISTA, I had comparatively little experience from the organization’s perspective. 

“After years of building an academic network—something graduate students are repeatedly encouraged to do—I have to build a new one?”

“Actually,” I told my supervisor, “both of my bosses at the Cedar Rapids Public Library were very familiar with this process. I bet they would be willing to talk with us about the application process and how it can help MDCI. Do you want me to set up a meeting with them?” 

I sent off a quick email asking my previous supervisors how they were doing, how summer programming was coming along at the library, and asked if they would be willing to meet with us and talk all things AmeriCorps VISTA. I sent it without thinking. After all, these are people I know well. I’ve met their children, had lunch with them, know their love of 3D printers and theater. These were the people who I celebrated my acceptance to the University of Iowa with. I knew they had the expertise we needed, and I knew that they would be willing to share it with MDCI. After I sent the email, I paused. Had I just networked? 

Black metal structure on a white background
Alina Grubnyak via Unsplash

Networking isn’t about making quick, insincere connnections. It’s about building lasting relationships with people who share your values. I care about bringing key resources to underestimated communities; any project I’ve ever worked on outside that academy has served that goal. It makes sense that my network shares those values, and that our connections to each other have the potential to strengthen our work. While those connections certainly come in handy in a pinch—especially when you least expect it—the foundation is in the relationship itself. 

I’m in the process of scheduling a meeting with my supervisors (old and new). I’m looking forward seeing old colleagues and to what the meeting might hold for MDCI. I won’t be around to see the results of the meeting myself, but I’m happy to see these two organizations connecting and sharing their resources with each other. Networking doesn’t have to be for your own gain. It’s for working together to create the kind of future we want to see.