uAspire College Students Conquer the Art of Networking

By: Chris Loney | Monday, May 6, 2013

Nonprofit uAspire and Investment Firm Loomis Sayles Team Up

BOSTON – Nearly 25% of college freshmen in Massachusetts drop out of school every year – a higher percentage than any other year in college. Add in the challenge of being a student from a low-income background, and the chances of dropping out of college with debt and no degree rise significantly.

To earn a college degree today, low-income students need a strong network of support – both personal and professional. “For today’s college students coming from low-income backgrounds and looking to make it in the professional world, learning how to network is arguably one of the most important skills they need to develop,” says Ann Coles, Senior Fellow at uAspire. For most low-income and first-generation students without access, networking can be scary and uncomfortable. “The idea of walking into a room with the goal of meeting complete strangers freaks me out,” says Sherri Furtado, a student at Northeastern University who grew up in Dorchester and will be the first person in her family to get a college degree.

Most professionals agree – networking is essential for career advancement. On any given day, people are practicing the art of networking – in the gym, at a cocktail party, in Starbucks, at business conferences, even on the elevator. Networkers make time to meet new people, swap business cards and form connections. It’s a fact for anyone navigating the jungle gym of life. So what can low-income college students – high on potential but low on experience – do when faced with this reality?

A new program run by uAspire, called uAspire Works, connects corporate volunteers to low-income college students in their freshman and sophomore years of school. Together in pairs – one corporate volunteer and one college student – they build networking skills and practice them as a duo at events throughout the city.

“uAspire Works is a program that we hope will help college students learn skills and gain the confidence to network themselves into that first summer job or internship,” said Bassel Agha, a volunteer from Loomis Sayles. “With training, helping them learn how to look someone in the eye and give them a firm handshake,  I have seen these amazing students begin to understand the power of networking and its potential to not only find a job, but to give them options so that they can choose a career.” Another Loomis Sayles volunteer, Alex Dauria, added, “It has been rewarding to help young people on their way to a college degree get that extra edge that can lead to a meaningful work life.”

uAspire Works focuses on students who are just beginning their college education because freshman and sophomore years are risky times for low-income college students. Ann Coles, who is also a member of uAspire Works, explains that the art of meeting people, shaking hands, asking questions, and sharing appropriate information about oneself is a learned skill. Individuals whose parents have experience in the corporate world and know how to network can pick up this skill more easily. “Students who are the first in their families to go to college can feel awkward in a networking situation and tend to avoid such opportunities. uAspire Works hopes to change that dynamic.”

Many corporations in Boston see the value of a program like uAspire Works. In addition to Loomis Sayles, companies like Bank of America, Citizens Bank, IBM, Comcast, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Fidelity are participating in the program. With nearly 70% of future job openings requiring some level of higher education, businesses clearly see the value in ensuring that more young people obtain a college degree. By helping students early on in their college careers build their networking skills, uAspire and its corporate partners hope to see more young people persist all the way through to a college degree.

As for Sherri, the Northeastern student, she is happy to report that she now “gets it,” adding, “I now understand that a college education is important to open up the door to many opportunities, and being able to network allows me to get my foot in that door.”

For those interested in learning more about uAspire Works, please contact Chris Minerd at (617) 778-7195 x128 or chrism@uaspire.org.

Bassel Agha and Alex Dauria, of Loomis, Sayles & Company, and UMass Dartmouth College student Kevin Herbert, take a break from working the room together at the uAspire First One Awards, which welcomed more than 400 guests on February 28, 2013, at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel. Photo © Christopher Huang http://christopherhuang.com


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