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A Systems Thinking Guide to Student Networking During Quarantine

One of the things I learned in my Systems Thinking courses at Cornell University is that systems thinking can be used not only to solve wicked problems, but also to solve everyday problems. Sure, we studied policy analysis, wickedly complex systems like health care, discrimination, economies, policy resistance, and the like. But, we also looked at everyday problems. How to feed the dogs better. How to create a more efficient to do list, psycho-social-emotional "sliders" that help you to change your individual behaviors, and numerous other more "pedestrian" problems that were described as "everyday problems."

It was a few days into the Covid-19 quarantine that I had a realization. “Am I making the most of this situation?" My to-do list was complete. I had successfully cleaned my home, caught up on my netflix series (any “Kingdom” fans out there?), checked in with family, and completed looming design projects. I woke up that next morning asking myself, “Now what?”

In Mandarin, the word for crisis (危机), bears the meaning of two words simultaneously: “danger” and “opportunity.” As someone fortunate enough to be self-contained away from any immediate danger in the comfort of my home, I reflected on what opportunities were present. I began reaching out to check in on those in my network: friends, family, professors, colleagues, and professional contacts. What I realized was that while I was at home comfortably doing work from my couch, so to were almost everyone else in my network!

These circumstances give us an opportunity. An opportunity to connect with those who may normally be too busy or occupied in meetings to schedule undisturbed time to talk. Besides the occasional dog or child to make unexpected appearances, I have found that over the past few weeks I have been able to check-in with many professional and personal connections. The “Virtual Coffee Chat” can (and should) become a new norm for professionals and students looking to maintain meaningful connections.

So, I took some time to apply systems thinking to some of the principles I use for virtual networking during the quarantine.

Here it is in text form:

Do your Research.
Who would you like to connect to? How will you contact them? What will you all talk about during the call? What’s happening in the industry? I am a strong supporter for researching individuals by professional experience on Linkedin and sending them a polite message asking if they are interested in joining you for a phone call because I would love to learn more about their professional journey and industry. What’s the worst that can happen?

Have your Elevator Pitch Ready.
My go-to formula: “My name is Alexandria [name], I’m from the Washington D.C. area [where you’re from]. I have my MPA from Cornell etc [school], and my industry area is government, foreign affairs, and diversity/inclusion [industry area or interested industry]. I’m passionate about increasing African-American participation in Government [what your passionate about/or interested in/or your research]. Then connect your interests to the speakers industry area and express how and why you are interested in learning more.

Starting the Conversation.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions about “how are they doing during this time?” or “What are things like where you are right now?” Following that I would suggest thanking them for taking the time to speak to you. Just because they are at home, does not mean that they don’t have work or other things to do. Always be grateful no matter how the conversation goes.

Be Mindful of your Environment and Background Noise.
By no means is anyone expected to be wearing a full suit during this time. However, try to keep things minimal, tidy, and quiet so to avoid distractions for either of you.

Be Respectful of their time.
30 minutes is a standard time for a coffee chat, when you feel the conversation has come to a close simply say something along the lines of: “...I want to be respectful of your time, so I wanted to say thank you again for taking the time to speak to me and I would love to stay connected if you are open to that..”

Let Them do the Talking.
If you’re new to networking, it can be intimidating to carry a conversation with someone who may be more senior than you. Be prepared to ask questions about the industry, their career, and any advice they would have for someone in the field. Have a pen and paper ready to take notes!

Be Genuinely Interested.
It goes a long way.

Follow up.
Send a follow up email or message thanking them for their time.

While it’s easy for us to loathe in the reality of being contained in our homes for weeks, it seems that we have an opportunity to see these circumstances as a glass (coffee mug?) half-empty or half-full. Which one are you choosing?