Placing the Relationship First: Connecting with College Students and Alumni in a Distracted World

By Adam Mayer

Due to growing enrollment, many higher education institutions are increasingly connecting with students and alumni amid group settings. Information sessions, seminars and workshops deftly reach a large number of students in a short period of time and can be highly effective.

A well-attended initiative, Montclair State University’s roundtable series, Careers and Coffee, offers both current students and alumni a forum for discussing best practices. Discussion themes change monthly, highlighted by a top 10 list. Topics include managing our Internet footprint, effective job search correspondence, networking strategies, behavioral-based interviewing, and overcoming obstacles.

Many Careers and Coffee attendees seek individualized attention. They follow through by staying after an event or simply dropping by the Center for Career Services. These face-to-face interactions are the cornerstone of relationship-building; however, we’re living in a world brimming with distractions. Internet analyst Mary Meeker reports that people in the United States spend nearly 7 ½ hours a day staring at screens. TVs, tablets, smartphones, and computers all have our attention. That said, some might say we have forgotten how to forge real relationships. So, how do we create actual relationships with students and alumni?

The Art of Being Present
Given the opportunity to speak with students directly, often under time constraints, we need to make our time count. Key to relationship building is remaining present.

  • Minimize distractions by creating an environment geared toward connection. Silence the smartphone and place it out of reach. Taking phone calls during conversations can send the wrong message.
  • It seems so simple, nearly elementary, but occasionally using a student’s name during conversation really sets a bond.
  • If body language constitutes the majority of conversation, we need to connect non-verbally. Mirroring a student’s body language and maintaining eye contact facilitates connection.
  • If at all possible, take time to center yourself. Gather your thoughts and energy. This step is critical to active listening, where paraphrasing concerns brings clarity to the conversation.

The benefits of being truly present are enormous. To begin with, students are much more likely to take stock in our advice. Professional feedback for students can be a game-changer, opening their eyes to job search tenets and equipping them with lifelong career development tools. Additionally, present-based relationships add substantial depth.

Leading by Example
By modeling genuine engagement, students are given an example of how to connect. Learning how to connect has the potential to inform other career competencies, most importantly, how to network. An obstacle for many students, the ability to network is widely considered the most effective job search method. The student who learns how to make meaningful connections is likely to fare well in the job search.

The opposite is true, too. If we submit to a climate teeming with distraction, students and alumni will see that example as acceptable, a norm to be followed.

Virtual Relationship-Building
Screen time is inescapable, so let’s make this an advantage. Once a face-to-face conversation ends, online interaction is a logical follow-up.

  • With the increasing popularity of video interviewing, consider offering availability to clients through Skype and FaceTime. Students and alumni then learn to be comfortable in an interviewing medium many employers prefer.
  • Monitoring social media analytics gives us a sense of what our audience wants. For example, Facebook’s Insights feature quantifies a post’s reach and engagement. Tailoring content allows us to deepen the online relationship.
  • Reaching students and alumni through webinars allows us to influence screen time. Webinars offer significant bang for the buck, too. This past year Montclair State University offered Red Hawk Resumes: Stand Out! as a webinar, and then uploaded the archive to career services’ YouTube channel. Ongoing, this will lead to a valuable electronic archive of resources for students and alumni.

What Employers Want

Many of us refer to the National Association of Colleges and Employers top 10 list of skills/qualities. Not surprisingly, three of the ten skills require the ability to create relationships.

  • Ability to work in a team structure
  • Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
  • Ability to sell and influence others

Relationship-building requires considerable time and attention, commodities often in short supply for college students, alumni, employers, and higher education professionals. Once the connection is made, however, the relationship can be significant for all parties.

For current students, connecting with a college professional can turn a potentially daunting experience into an environment filled with certainty and promise. Students have a familiar face on campus, someone they can turn to for considering ideas. Alumni may feel a sense of assurance that their alma mater supports them, cementing the idea that their time in college was well spent. Higher education professionals benefit, too, in that an often times elusive sense of satisfaction is achieved. Knowing that we are helpful to students, connecting concretely or in an intuitive way, can be just the thing that makes a lasting impression.

Making and taking the time to connect is no small feat. Juggling campus collaborations, attending multiple meetings, innovating services, remaining active in professional associations – all occur simultaneously and demand our attention. This continuous juggling act represents one of our greatest challenges. However, managing this never-ending sea of information and activity can be done. By being present, leading by example and extending the relationship beyond face-to-face interactions, we can connect with students and alumni, effectively rising above the din.

Frommer, D. (2014, May). Mary Meeker’s 2014 internet trends report: All the slides plus highlights. Retrieved from http://qz.com/214307/mary-meeker-2014-internet-trends-report-all-the-slides/

Williams, T. (2015, June). Job Outlook study reveals the top 10 skills employers want in college grads. Retrieved from https://www.goodcall.com/news/what-skills-do-employers-want-in-college-graduates-01169


Adam MayerAdam Mayer, MA, GCDF, CPRW, is Director of Career Development in the Center for Career Services at Montclair State University. He earned a BA in Psychology from The Richard Stockton College of NJ and an MA in Counseling from Montclair State University. He is a Certified Professional Resume Writer, Global Career Development Facilitator and MBTI Qualified by the Association for Psychological Type.  He draws from over 15 years of experience in the field to provide effective career services to undeclared students and alumni. He may be contacted at mayerad@mail.montclair.edu

Printer-Friendly Version