Over the past weekend, I began reading Julia Freeland Fisher’s new book Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students’ Networks. Julia underscores how students are increasingly interacting with professionals from a wealth of industries via video chats and social learning platforms, not just in person.  

How students connect—to one another, to their teachers, and to new adult mentors, industry experts, and role models—stands to shift dramatically in the coming decades,” Fisher says. “These innovations in turn stand to disrupt the limitations ingrained in all students’ inherited networks.”

Until these new channels are more widely available, students should increase efforts to build their networks the old-fashioned way—personal, one-on-one follow up. And there is no better place to start than with speakers who visit your campus.

Mark Hass, professor of practice at Arizona State University, agrees. “Students have a great opportunity when they are at school, not just to learn from their teachers and other mentors, but also to take advantage of the willingness of established professionals to help the next generation launch and advance careers. There is not a single professional I know, including global agency CEOs and Fortune 50 CCOs, who do not welcome a chance to help a student get started. All a qualified student needs to do is ask.”

Besides Mark, I also asked Southeast Missouri State professor Susan Gonders what holds students back from proactively engaging with established professionals. She offered great advice that includes networking outside the classroom.

“The comfort zone for many students is like a sponge – sitting quietly and soaking up whatever comes their way,” Susan explained. “The best opportunities are not likely to seek the sponge. So students who go to conferences should not cling to one another; they should sit next to (and get acquainted with) someone who might network them with a job or internship. When students hear guest speakers, they should take the initiative to thank the speaker. Professionals are flattered to be asked questions, and they usually welcome a student who asks to shadow them for a day. When a career opportunity becomes available, the professional thinks first of the student who connected with him at a conference, or wrote him a thank-you note, or otherwise showed the assertiveness that is essential in building relationships. So students should stop waiting for opportunities to come their way. They should reach for those opportunities.”

Pat Ford, professional in residence at the University of Florida and former vice chair of Burston-Marsteller, offers these valuable insights for high-potential young pros and future pros:

“Many of us spend a great deal of time and effort to create opportunities for students and young professionals but perhaps not enough time in teaching how to recognize and seize opportunities. Even the best opportunities are often hard to recognize; I sometimes wish they would come wrapped in a Tiffany box with ‘how-to’ instructions inside. But, alas, they don’t.
“Harold Burson likes to talk about the importance of ‘defining moments.’ We all have them in our lives, but are we aware of them when they arise? And do we have the initiative and ambition and courage to take a chance and seize them?
“I know I squandered numerous opportunities early in my career because I didn’t realize what various mentors — or potential mentors — were trying to do to help me and thus I didn’t want to impose. That realization is part of what drives me later in my career to be more proactive about how I mentor high-potential PR pros and future pros. At some point, however, they need to want to accept that help.”