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Perspective: What’s in a Network?

Fostering an Advantage

November 19, 2021 – In recent years, NAUDL has sought to expand opportunities for debaters that extend beyond the after-school practices and the traditional weekend tournament experience. While participation in debate is often a formative experience, we recognize the importance of going beyond the rounds for active debaters and alumni alike, and have intentionally worked to increase networking and professional development opportunities in the Urban Debate community.

What’s in a network? It turns out, quite a lot.

In reading a Barron’s article this summer that explored unemployment trends in the U.S., I was struck that 9.2 million jobs remain unfilled despite the existence of 9.5 million unemployed workers.  This phenomenon is known as the “talent gap” and it persists, at least in part, because the current job market demands skills that may not align with those of workers whose jobs have been displaced by automation practices.

This trend is amplified by what David Cohen, VP of Talent Solutions at LinkedIn, described in a recent discussion as the “network gap.” Cohen identifies three factors that contribute to network strength:

  • Growing up in an affluent neighborhood gives some individuals a threefold advantage in building a strong network.
  • Attending a university with a “good” brand doubles the strength of an individual’s network.
  • Brand recognition of a person’s first job or internship also doubles someone’s advantage in building a strong network.

These factors are cumulative, so the presence of all three means that some individuals may have a network that is 12 times stronger than someone without these advantages — both competing for the best employment opportunities.

Many of the young adults who are least likely to have these advantages in their neighborhoods, schools and first internships, are the students that NAUDL and our league partners serve. Talented individuals who are first-generation Americans and first-generation college students who are often attempting to build their network and career connections on their own.

Through our 10-week White & Case NAUDL Fellows program, NAUDL has designed a program that aims to close some of these gaps as identified by Cohen. Our staff and leagues work with Urban Debate alumni to develop an internship experience that includes 1:1 mentoring, as well as opportunities to build career plans and readiness skills. Additionally, Fellows participate in weekly virtual Roundtables, with each week  exploring a 21st century career-readiness competency, modeled on the work of the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

These Roundtable discussions are designed to improve NACE career-readiness competencies while forging connections with professional volunteers. In these small group conversations with guest panelists, Fellows are able to ask candid questions to law firm partners, start-up executives, entrepreneurs, communications experts, and even retired military officers, from entities like White & Case LLP, The Asia Group and The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Volunteers are refreshingly open in their responses, sharing their experiences in charting a career, seizing unexpected opportunities, making one’s mark in a new role, building relationships, and turning mistakes into lessons learned. Each week, Fellows demonstrate their own poise and readiness, researching volunteer profiles in advance and coming prepared with thoughtful questions. Through these exchanges, Fellows develop a greater comfort in networking and add more than a few influencers to their burgeoning personal networks.

For NAUDL, our goal is always to meet our leagues and students where they are. That is, manifesting our support and programs in ways that will benefit them the most — while referring to education and hiring trends to inform these experiences. In the case of the Alumni Fellows, it is providing opportunities and access to begin to build their networks, better preparing them to compete in what is sure to persist as a highly competitive job market.  To quote 2021 Fellow Javier Hernandez, we are providing “an indispensable part to [students’] professional development” — and we are proud to do so.

Have mentorship ideas, or time and talent, you would like to share with NAUDL and Urban Debate? Please reach out to Brooke Moreland, NAUDL Director of Education.

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