It’s hard to believe, but Kris and I graduated from Willamette University nearly twenty years ago. We enjoyed our time in college, and remain close to many of our classmates. It’s always fun when we get a chance to drive to Salem to re-visit the campus. We did just that tonight.

The university hosted a “You’re Doing What With Your Major?” alumni career panel to connect current students with former Bearcats who are now working professionals. Kris — who is a chemist — took part in the science panel, and I sat in on the marketing and communications group.

Kris and J.D. at graduation in 1991

You’re doing what with your major?
This event was meant to show students that a college major doesn’t have to dictate your career. There are no degrees in blogging, for example (at least not yet, anyhow); I was a psychology major with a minor in writing. My classmate Marcia is now an education and political consultant; she majored in English and French. One of the other panelists runs a web marketing firm; he majored in religious studies.

As each panelist told her story, I was struck by the role internships played for so many of them. When I was in school, I knew people did internships, but I never understood why. They just seemed like more work. Listening to my colleagues tonight, however, it all made sense. By volunteering for an unpaid internship, these folks developed skills and connections that helped them build amazing careers. Why didn’t I understand this 25 years ago?

Near the end of the evening, one student asked a great question: “What do you wish you’d done differently when you were in school?” I had an answer.

“I wish I’d paid more attention to networking,” I said. “Everyone here did a good job of making connections with faculty or through internships. I didn’t do that. I didn’t bother to get to know people. I didn’t think it was important. Now, though, I think it’s very important. I’ve connected with a lot of people since I started my blog, and that’s allowed my opportunities and audience to really expand. Networking has a bad rep, but it can be tremendously effective.

I was pleased that my fellow panelists added their support, offering examples of how networking has helped them further their careers.

A few minutes later, another student asked a follow-up question. “How do you feel about students e-mailing you to make contact or ask questions. Do too many people do that?”

Nobody does that,” the woman next to me said, and again we all agreed. “If you’re the one who tries to make a connection, that helps you stand out from the crowd. I’d bend over backward to help somebody if they contacted me. And if I couldn’t help them, I’d try to find someone who could.”

Perfect examples
After the panel was finished, students had a chance to speak with alumni one-on-one. Most of the students left, but a few stuck around to pick our brains. I spent a while talking with Steven, one of the managers of Willamette’s student-run cafe, The Bistro. Steven is a senior now and trying to decide what he wants to do with his life. He thinks he might want to start a restaurant near campus.

“There’s no place in Salem that’s open late,” Steven told me. “I think there needs to be a place for students and other people to go.” He described his vision and asked if I had any advice. I did.

“First, you need to realize that it’s very difficult to make a restaurant succeed. But don’t let that stop you. Just be aware of it. Next, one of the best things you can do is talk to others who have done similar things before you. In your case, for example, you should talk to the fellow who started The Bistro in 1986.”

“I just met him a few weeks ago!” Steven said.

“That’s great,” I said. “You should use that connection. Drop him a line and ask if he’s willing to talk with you about what it’s like to start a restaurant or to start a business. And try to find others who have done this, too.”

Kris and I left about half an hour after the career panel had ended. As we did, I noticed there were still two people sitting at one of the tables: an investment manager and a young man taking notes. I smiled to myself and thought, “There’s a kid who will go places.”

Missed opportunities
On the drive home, Kris and I talked about the panel. I told her I regretted not being more active in creating my own future when I was younger.

“I remember the summer after our senior year,” I said. “I was working on campus, right? Well, an incoming freshman came around with his parents. He went off someplace with his mother, and I spent about twenty minutes talking with his father. He owned a big business in Portland. I told him how I didn’t have a job lined up, and I didn’t know what I was going to do in the fall. When it came time for him to go, this guy handed me his business card and told me to call him. He’d set me up. But you know what? I never called him.”

Instead, I ended up working at the worst job I ever had, selling insurance door-to-door in rural Oregon. I sighed. “That’s like the one time I had a chance to use networking to my advantage, but I was too dumb to do it.”

“You never were a go-getter back then,” Kris said. “You are now, but that’s only because you had to learn to be one to build your blog.”

Five years ago, I scoffed at the idea of networking. I thought it was the domain of smooth-talking hucksters. I know different now. Networking is about building mutually beneficial relationships, about creating connections that help both parties pursue their goals.

This article is about Career, Education, Real-Life, Relationships