A basic premise of human nature is our need to associate with others. Of course, increasingly social media and videoconferencing are accomplishing this. Virtual and technological means have advantages, especially when time and place create limitations. The ability to Skype with someone in another part of the world in a different time zone may be essential to not only getting work done, but also as a way of staying in touch with family and friends. My son is serving in the Peace Corps in Namibia, and I have come to appreciate how WhatsApp allows me to reach him instantaneously 8,000 miles away.
But even with the potential of technology, making a live personal connection with someone is the best way of showing sincerity, interest, enthusiasm, and the desire to build a relationship. Empathy and good listening skills are best demonstrated in person, and these and a host of other “soft skills” are increasingly demanded in professional settings.
As a Fulbrighter, you appreciate the value of intercultural connection and seeking commonality. Those aspiring to teach, study, and research overseas do so recognizing that personal diplomacy and building bridges are best done in coffee houses, in front of a class, and during office hours.
For these reasons, whenever possible take opportunities to meet with individuals one on one: to network, for coffee, and at conferences and meetings. Your interest, your ability to read another’s reactions, and maybe most importantly, your smile, will be most evident in more intimate spaces.
Networking can be seen as strategic engagement, often in chaotic and rapid moving settings. For instance, going to a career fair and moving from conversation to conversation, often after only spending a few minutes with a person, is a form of networking. Informal networking can be undertaken at social events: taking the opportunity to talk with friends and family about your aspirations. In reality, anytime you talk with someone you are meeting for the first time, you are networking. Being prepared is vital in these settings: having a business card, an elevator speech or 2-minute strategic share, and even a resume is important.
I am a big proponent of having coffee (the health benefits are convincing in and of themselves!). Of course, that doesn’t mean you must actually have coffee. We often think of get-togethers taking place in Starbucks and similar locations. But grabbing something to go and meeting in a park might be better in that noise and distractions can be minimized. Coffee can be with someone you know well who might make introductions for you, or someone who are you unfamiliar with who might open a few doors. Remember, when you have coffee, put your phone and computer away (I mean in your pocket, purse or backpack!). You need to fully engage and soak in the “wisdom” that will come from the meeting.
Conferences are also good places to meet new people who might advance your career. Because conferences are thematic, they are good to attend if you have a specific interest or field you are interested in or working toward. Students and young professionals can often volunteer at conferences and get either a reduced rate or free admission to the conference. Once again, be prepared to talk about your work, your interests, and, share your Fulbright experience. Keep your phone and computer at bay. Once again, you need to make human connection, eye contact, and demonstrate your interest and passion.
—David J. Smith
David J. Smith (Fulbright Scholar, Estonia 2003-2004) is a career coach and the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He is on the career advisory board of the Peace and Collaborative Development Network. David writes regularly on career issues at davidjsmithconsulting.com. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.