By Megan Garber
Many college students and young professionals view networking as a scary and unpleasant activity, and one that can be prohibitively expensive.  As a student or recent graduate starting your career, you want to make networking part of your lifestyle.  We all know that the best way to find a job is through your contacts, and networking is a way to build your contacts so that you have them when you need them.  Career fairs and company information sessions are a great way to network, but once you have a job you probably stop attending career fairs and similar events.  You need to find a way to network that fits with your interests, comfort zone, and budget.

When you hear the work networking, what comes to mind?  If you think of a room of professionals exchanging business cards and trying to sell themselves and their company and product, you are only partly correct.  That image is only a small piece of networking, and many of us find that kind of setting uncomfortable and intimidating. 
I am not encouraging you to avoid professional association networking events, but national professional association conferences are typically held once a year and they can be expensive if your employer does not sponsor your attendance.  If you have an opportunity to attend a national, regional, or local professional association meeting, I strongly encourage you to take that opportunity.  Volunteer to help the association by serving on a committee, assisting new members, or assisting with the event to make the most of your experience and stay involved throughout the year. 
The goal is to make networking something you do on a regular basis; not just when you need a job or when the annual conference rolls around.  To make networking a part of your lifestyle, you need to find events you enjoy attending and where you find people who have similar interests.  Ask yourself these questions:
  • What activities and events do I enjoy?
  • If I moved to a new city and didn’t know anyone, how would I make friends?
  • What kind of people do I want to meet?  What is our shared interest?
You also want to find networking opportunities that match your budget.  Many young professionals have a limited amount of personal funds to dedicate toward networking and professional development.  If you are employed, you may want to have a discussion with your boss about your professional development goals and see if he or she is willing to support you financially in your efforts. 
Don’t limit yourself to strictly professional types of networking.  Networking put simply is meeting new people and developing mutually beneficial relationships with them.  Networking can be done in any setting, and you may find social, athletic, community service, religious or professional development events or groups a good fit for you.
If you enjoy team sports, consider joining a kickball or softball team or a running group.  Here’s a link to an article in the Miami Herald about how young adults in Miami are networking through kickball.  If you’re shy, convince a friend to join with you.  Even if you create a whole team of your friends, you’ll still have a chance to network with other teams’ members after the game.
If you enjoy watching sports more than playing, look for alumni game watches.  The University of Miami Alumni Association has alumni clubs across the country, and you can find a club near you on their website.
If you prefer professional sports teams, go to a sports bar or restaurant to watch the games.  You can connect with other fans and you never know whom you will meet.
Community service is a great way to give back to the community and meet new people.  If you’re interested in healthcare, volunteer in a hospital, clinic, or health education fair.  If you’re interested in law or social work, look for volunteer programs like the Florida Guardian ad LitemProgram where you advocate for abused, neglected, and at-risk children. 
Whatever your interest, you can find an organization for which to volunteer.  If you live in Miami, UM’s Butler Center for Service and Leadership has a searchable databaseof volunteer agencies in the community. If you’re a student at UM, the Butler Center organizes multiple days of service for UM students and they oversee many student organizations with a community service mission. 
If you were involved in community service in college and have since graduated, there are ways to continue to be involved in your community.  Check out VolunteerMatch to find opportunities in your area.  Many volunteer opportunities have no cost attached to them, so if you are on a very small budget, volunteering may be the way to go. 
Professional Development Nonprofit Organizations
Joining a nonprofit organization can be a great way to meet new people with shared interests and become a part of your community.  Here are organizations you may want to look into:
JCI International, a membership-based nonprofit organization for young people ages 18 to 40,
Junior League, a nonprofit organization of women, developed as civic leaders, creating demonstrable community impact. Toastmasters International, join a local club to improve your leadership and speaking skills.  Joining an organization will cost you some money, but it can be worth it for the networking and professional development opportunities. 
Religious and Spiritual Organizations
If you enjoy going to church, mass, temple, or any type of religious service, consider joining a local group.  Many religious and spiritual organizations have smaller groups for young adults and they also offer community service opportunities.  Volunteer to help the organization and you will meet other volunteers with similar values. 
Community Classes
Many community colleges offer community education courses such as dance, cooking, and art classes.  If you have always wanted to learn another language, consider enrolling in a language course.  Sites like Groupon and Living Socialsometimes have deals like cooking classes, wine tastings, local tours, and yoga classes.  If you find a deal that sounds interesting, buy it and try to talk to at least one new person during your experience. 

Toppel Career Center Events

The Toppel Career Center provides many networking events such as career development programs, the annual Student and Alumni Career Symposium, and career fairs and expos for University of Miami students and alumni.  For UM alumni, Toppel offers monthly networking events called Tuesdays with Toppel in the Coral Gables and Miami where UM alumni can network with each other and with employers.  Each event is only $10 and you get one free drink and appetizers.

Student & Alumni Career Symposium, Networking Reception

While it can be uncomfortable to step outside of your comfort zone and talk to someone you don’t know, it can be incredibly rewarding.  If you already have a shared interest with someone, it is easier to strike up a conversation about that shared interest.  You never know where that conversation can lead.  Find events or activities that match your interests and where you will feel comfortable.  Recruit a friend or colleague to go with you so you feel more comfortable.  Once you have made a connection, remember to stay in touch with that person.  It’s about building relationships over time, not just giving out business cards.  

What networking activities or events have worked for you?  Please share your advice in the Comments section!