I have fond, giggle-filled memories of sputtering out the last lines of cumulative children’s songs in a single breath. A familiar example of such a song is There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, but my absolute favorite culminated into this string of ever-higher-pitched, gasped lyrics: There’s an eye on the flea, there’s a flea on the wing, there’s a wing on the fly, there’s a fly on the frog, there’s a frog on the bump, there’s a bump on a log, there’s a log in the hole, there’s a hole in the bottom of the sea. A similar song, though far less melodious, may be crafted of the precedents leading to this post: There’s a networking post on a blog, there’s a blog written by a professor, there’s publisher and professor who met at a meeting...
This song could of course go on to explore the series of planned and unplanned (though not random) events that led two professors to teach FYS courses and then to be in such positions as to be involved in a statewide meeting, and then connect in agreement on the conceptual premises of the FYS course, and then to co-present at a number of conferences, and to have had a publisher attend a conference session that would lead to the invitation for a blog post; however, I’ll spare you the continued detail in the interest of word count and grammar.
Krumboltz’s (2009) Happenstance Learning Theory provides a more scholarly interpretation of the events that lead to professional and growth opportunities. He identifies five key qualities that lead to planned happenstance events: curiosity, persistence, flexibility, optimism, and risk-taking. These qualities, when fostered and valued, lead learners to recognize potential opportunities in even unexpected situations and then to have the confidence to take action to capitalize on them. Happenstance Learning Theory provides the theoretical foundation for the thread of events that lead to the old lady swallowing the fly - or rather, that lead to authoring opportunities, mentoring relationships, and job opportunities.
When we discuss networking with students – and we, FYS instructors, should be discussing networking with students – we are able to tug away the veil on the adage that when it comes to scoring a job, “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” For some college students - and especially for first generation college students - who lack social capital, this adage foretells of a daunting career journey that is far less direct than graduating in a major and then getting a job in that field. So what can FYS instructors do to both to mitigate that anxiety and contribute to evening the playing field?
First, instructors should include career planning and decision-making in their courses. The most recent National Survey of First-Year Seminars conducted by the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition concluded that 56.8% of respondent colleges and universities noted career exploration and/or preparation as a first-year priority (Young, 2018). Bailey, Jenkins, & Jaggar (2015), in their follow-up work to actualizing the college completion agenda, recommend lending highest priority to career planning and decision-making. But planning for a career and studying that field are insufficient goals in a job market predicated on planned and unplanned connections. Therefore, we contend that networking be discussed and practiced in the classroom or through facilitated out-of-classroom experiences. Faculty particularly interested in equity issues should heed the call.
We can start by fostering and explicitly discussing those qualities that help us take advantage of opportunities as they come – those that are described by Krumboltz and are listed above. We can then build upon that foundation with intentional activities that build students’ self-efficacy while they practice and prepare for both formal and informal networking. To help start the conversation, we can map our own career journey backwards, to our earliest jobs burning (or, uh, toasting) bagels to being in the classroom, noting the personal connections along the way that facilitated this journey. In this discussion, students may be able to identify the people who have already or who could in the future provide them similar opportunities. They may also consider who they, or their classmates, know that work in a field of interest through a no-more-than six degrees of separation type of exercise. Practicing efficient and effective networking conversation is also key to confidence-building. Powerful classroom activities and assignments to engage students in working towards this goal may include: crafting elevator speeches, preparing for and undertaking informational interviews, and participating in mock career fairs. Regardless of the specific activity or activities chosen, the key is to use the FYS classroom as a career learning lab where students can build skills and confidence to network, and to take advantage of unplanned opportunities as they come.
Sabrina Mathues is a full-time faculty member and Department Chair for College Success at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, NJ. As a national Guided Pathways coach, she works with Brookdale and other colleges to develop career-focused college success curriculum and to redesign wraparound student supports. Her favorite past-times include acrylic painting, collecting sea glass, and – of course – teaching her young son how to give a good handshake.
Bailey, T. A., Jaggars, S. S., & Jenkins, D. (2015). Redesigning America’s community colleges:
A clearer path to student success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Krumboltz, J. D. (2009). The happenstance learning theory. Journal of Career Assessment,
17(2), 135-154. doi: 10.1177/1069072708328861
Young, D. G. (2018, September 18). Data from the 2017 National Survey on The First-Year
Experience: Creating connections to go beyond traditional thinking. Retrieved from the National Resource Center for First-Year Experience and Students in Transition website: