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In Which I Become Charlotte and Build a Web

March 5, 2012

Ma'ayan Plaut ’10

I don't know when the word "network" became a scary word — perhaps it was around the time that social networks took over our mainstream consciousness? — but for some reason, it strikes fear in even the bravest of Oberlin souls.

When I hear the words "Oberlin" and "network" in the same sentence, my heart leaps. You know why? Because usually that sentence included the word "alumni" and "meet" too. And if there's anything I love more than Oberlin, it's Oberlin alumni. Perhaps it was because I grew up around a handful of totally sweet Obies in Kentucky, but I never found talking to alumni a particularly scary prospect. Yes, most of them are older than me, wiser than me, and far more life-experienced than me, but we have this common thread: that of four years in northeastern Ohio in this magical Oberland.

This past weekend was an alumni weekend full of meetings and secrets (remember my first foray into the Enchanted Alumni Forest? This weekend was part two of my adventures). I spent some time in reunion planning meetings (uh, my five-year reunion is in 2014. What is this nonsense? I JUST GRADUATED AHHHHHH), meeting with other class agents who will be gathering their classmates for reunions two years from now, and of course, lots and lots of networking, both planned and unplanned, including an alumni-student networking dinner in the Science Center atrium — a thoroughfare and beautiful on-campus study space and fancy meal location with high ceilings and sweeping windows.

Let's pretend for a moment that this photograph is at night, and of the networking dinner I am about to describe below. This photo is actually from a networking dinner during the Design Symposium in 2010. Our event this weekend had almost every seat at 12 long rectangular tables filled!

When I was a junior, I signed up for a networking dinner sort of by accident. I received an email from career services telling me this was a great opportunity (I presume it was because I had found an awesome internship with the Striking Viking Story Pirates through ObieOpps, our internship database through career services) to talk to other alumni. Free dinner? People to talk to about Oberlin? SIGN ME UP. And I did. I signed up right then and there, and come a few weeks later, I found myself adorned with a nametag and seated at a table some students and alums.

I don't remember what we ended up talked about or the names of the people I sat with (I even started a blog post that very evening to talk about all the people I met, but it still sits, to this day, in my unfinished blog drafts pile, since I had a wretched time remembering the names of the people there — note: this is not best form for a networking experience), but I ended up sticking around and talking to Gideon Schein '68 for a good two hours after the event's official close, talking about movie making, theater, and other artistic endeavors he'd been involved with since graduating from Oberlin.

As I sat there with Aries and a few pals, some other friends drifted through the atrium and joined our conversation. It seems like everything Gideon said connected to at least one of us sitting around the table with him, and to this day, it's stuck with me as the turning point of my perspective of alumni ascending the status of gods I admire to just normal people who have been touched by Oberlin just as my friends and I have had the pleasure of experiencing as well.

Now that I'm a fancy schmancy Oberlin alum with a job (and business cards!) I want to become one of those people who bridge the gap between the Oberlin I lived every day to the Oberlin that persists in your life after you leave. While I do believe that you can initiate networking online (cause, you know, it's sort of my job and I've had some success with it), a face-to-face interaction trumps an email communication or LinkedIn invitation any day.

Events like an alumni-student networking dinner are fantastic exercises in practicing your in-person networking skills where there are already two things present that are in your favor: all the alumni there signed up specifically to talk to students and there's already one thing all of us in the room have in common: Oberlin. But even with that framing to the evening, it's still a bit intimidating.

The phrase "We are Oberlin: Awkward" (which has been drifting around this campus community for years) still resonates with Obies past, present, and future whenever it's mentioned. And here's the thing: networking is inherently awkward. You're talking to someone you've never met before with the hope of getting something from them — advice, information, a referral, etc. — and that's hard to do even if you aren't normally awkward. Even I, someone who loves to meet new people and talk to them about anything (especially Oberlin), have a hard time figuring out where to start when I'm in a room full of new people and I, awkwardly enough, become an awkward penguin. Silly, right? It happens even to the best of us.

I think we awkward Obies become terrified by the prospect of us being even more awkward than we already are while networking, but I'll let you in on a little secret: since we know awkward and we do awkward well, we might as well take advantage of the fact that we're really freaking good at being awkward and just be ourselves — because that's exactly what is expected of us at such an event. Even seasoned pros can be penguins sometimes. And at least a penguin is well-dressed and we'll all share a giggle if it stumbles clumsily on the ice.

So, let's fast forward to this weekend. We're at the alumni-student dinner, I'm sitting there with my "Ask Me About..." nametag with three bullet points (Social Media! Communications! Not FTLing!), there's some food (man, that cheesecake was pretty delicious), there's a short panel with Melissa Threadgill '04, Jackie Hughes '76, Lisa Whitfield '90, and Chuck Spitulnik '73 (look! I remembered everyone's name and class year this time!) to share some advice about how to get what you want from networking, and then there was chattering time where we milled about and talked to each other.

My goal was to meet at least three new folks and offer at least one referral or piece of advice to every person I talked to. In order:

- I walked over to a table and traded seats with Dean of Studies Kathryn Stuart to meet Sarah, Robert, and Thomas. We talked a bit about social media and then what you can do if you don't immediately find work after graduating.

- I then ushered Robert over to meet Brandi, since he was interested in writing, to talk about the editorial fellowship in our office that EJ now inhabits.

- I talked to Neil about social media marketing in the theater sphere and gave him a handful of names of recent graduates working in theaters in his hometown of Chicago and an alum who works with arts marketing in New York.

- I chatted briefly with Sam Abrams, my photo mentee, and set up a meeting with her over a meal later this week.

- I ended my evening talking to Tess about how I tackle social media at Oberlin (cause my job is AWESOME).

Suddenly, the atrium was empty and I saw Jacob inching his way toward the door to head to OBehave's Civil War show, so we joined forces in briskly walking to the Cat in the windy weather. On the way, he pitched his non-profit plan he's trying to launch next year centering around arts education and empowerment in schools in DC next year and then, bam. I'd conversed with seven Obies, offered some advice, and made at least four referrals. (Seriously, giant high fives to all the bloggers I saw on Saturday. Y'all win at least 10 more cool points.)

I'm no neuroscientist, so I can't explain what happened in my body and brain on Saturday (Ben? Wanna help me out?), but what felt like an adrenaline rush that came from that amount of excited conversation and the exhilarating experience of sharing something that I know that can assist another Obie fueled me up for the rest of the night and through the following afternoon. For a good two hours, I sat down with three recent grads (Aries '09, Ezra '09, and John '11) to brainstorm ways to better connect us young folks and our young friends with helpful and fascinating Obies from all over the world.

We've been bitten by this bug, a bug called Richard Berman — the new god-like man who has been appointed the new director of career services here at Oberlin, who desires not to find our liberal arts graduates the most ideal job/career, but to connect us with other Obies to speak with to better create "moments of serendipity" ... just read the introduction I linked with his name; so worth it! — and with his help, the conversations surrounding what we can do in Oberlin before we leave and what we do when we do exit the bubble are happening. And they're moving in a direction that I can definitely get behind.

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