Networking: A Powerful Tool for Students

By Brian Kruse, Penn State Parents Council member

When my son was applying to Penn State, something that significantly impressed me was that the Penn State alumni network included over 692,000 people. After my over 30 years in business, I have learned that one’s network of peers and mentors is an important component to success. With an alumni network so large, I felt that my son would have the advantage of making connections that might help him in his academic and professional career. That has certainly proved to be true, even as soon as he accepted his offer of admission back in 2015. Shortly after, we were on vacation and he was proudly wearing his new Penn State sweatshirt in a restaurant in Florida. The manager happened to be an alumnus and came over to chat with us. He even gave us a “Penn State only” discount on the bill! Since he accepted his offer, I have continuously reminded my son of the importance of building his personal network at Penn State. By growing his network, connections are made, and opportunities arise.

One Sunday after church, I was chatting with our pastor and mentioned that my son attends Penn State.  She replied that the husband of her close friend is an engineering professor at University Park. I was surprised to find a Penn State connection in our little church, 400 miles away in Massachusetts! At that time, my son was looking for research opportunities in engineering. So, our pastor spoke to her friend and her husband said he’d be happy to meet my son. That meeting led to him joining an academic club that the professor advises, which subsequently led to a part-time research position working with one of the professor’s graduate students. This, in turn, led to full time employment assisting with research the following summer. This fall, he was credited in the publication of that research. Then, over his winter break, he told us that he was offered a summer internship with a company that he’s been interested in for the past three years because his contribution to that research was of interest to the company.

It’s amazing what a seemingly innocuous conversation on a Sunday can lead to years later. Whether your student is a freshman or a senior, it’s never too early or too late for them to build connections. The Penn State faculty are a tremendous resource for our students to tap into. In addition to academics, they have vast connections in industries and institutions. They also have unique insights into their fields. Encourage your students to take advantage of their professors’ office hours and make connections. Eye contact, a handshake, and solid conversation is always the most powerful networking tool.

Academic clubs and organizations are another good resource for students to build their network. At the University Park campus, there are over 280 of these! Majors from agriculture to education all have organizations that can help provide academic and professional connections.  Check them out at: https://studentaffairs.psu.edu/involvement-student-life/student-organizations

Another good opportunity for them (and you as family members) is to follow key Penn State publications like Penn State News. I signed up to receive the Penn State Today newsletter by email.  http://headlines.psu.edu/

I’ll often read about new research taking place at Penn State. Any of those that I think might interest my son, I forward the link with the suggestion to reach out to the faculty lead, if he’s interested. Following the publications and social media for your student’s college at Penn State is another good place to find opportunities. I follow the College of Engineering and the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering on Twitter and Facebook, looking for information that might be of interest to my son.

As your students start their Spring 2019 semester, encourage them to work on building their network of academic and professional contacts. It may provide them with key insights such as opportunities that aren’t public yet or learning more about their chosen field, its future, its challenges, and new trends.  They may even find a mentor! It takes time, effort, commitment and often some trial and error, but it’s an exercise that will continue to pay dividends for them now and into the future.