Co-authored by Michael Braun.
Special thanks to B&G Consulting Group for their thoughtful insights on this article.

Every college student has an immense opportunity to build lifelong personal and professional relationships throughout their academic experience. Understanding this is a unique opportunity to ensure student success this begs the question; how can we construct campus environments that stimulate positive relationship building leading to success for students well beyond graduation? Every individual within the environment has a role to play:

Students should recognize that relationships that stand the test of time are formed through genuine interest and care for others and are not targeted or transactional. Every strong, positive relationship built with the people around you can serve to help you along the way; it’s not possible to predict who, when, how, or to what extent. The people you will meet throughout your college experience come from all different backgrounds and boast a myriad of different skills. So, students, get out, meet others, be genuine in your care for them, and appreciate them far beyond whatever you think they might be able to do for you.

When it comes time to leverage your connections into a professional opportunity, mentorship, or support, the sincerity you convey and your attentiveness to those relationships will be clear. Transactional, offhand, and weak relationships will yield little support for your pursuits, while the strongest, most authentic, relationships will generate a shared interest in your success. Gaining certainty about the quality of your relationships ahead of any capitalizing attempt is critical to success. It’s important to invest the time to nurture emergent relationships, and this will also preserve your own reputation in the process.

When in college, seeking jobs, and operating in the workforce, young people often come across the all-too-familiar phrase, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” In some fields, “rubbing elbows” is increasingly conveyed as a prerequisite for success. Unfortunately, for young people, the concept of building and leveraging relationships typically brings one of two negative images to mind: the person with deep familial connections that have allowed them to succeed beyond what their work-ethic would otherwise indicate, or the “social assassin” who targets and poaches the “most important” person in the room in an attempt to reap some kind of benefit.

These portrayals paint the picture of networking as either something reserved for a select few or as a transactional task. Misconceptions like these set the stage for disappointment or disdain that ultimately lead to a lack of results. On the flipside, positive approaches to building honest relationships with peers, instructors and others you cross paths with on campus, is a best practice approach to advancement.

Faculty should recognize that a strong relationship-centric campus culture is reliant upon a professoriate that values student relationships in near equal status to student-education. Leaving college without having learned how to form and leverage authentic relationships is as equally detrimental to collegiate success as poor academic performance. Employing this philosophy means coaching and guiding those students you see struggling to build relationships with their classmates while challenging students who excel, just as you might challenge academically stronger students.

It will yield positive overall results if faculty are encouraged to prioritize building relationships with and among their students. Provide intentional opportunities for students to build relationships with one another. Implement relationship building activities into the classroom curricula, such as group work, which offers the opportunity for students to engage with one another, building proficiency in collaboration, delegation, giving and receiving constructive feedback, and the ability to gain cultural intelligence skills and work with diverse groups of people. Seek out opportunities to mentor students in the relationship space, be a continued resource to them, and be willing to lend a hand to students seeking professional opportunities.

Administrators that recognize a relationship-centric environment starts at the top are key in ensuring this is embedded in the campus culture. Campus leaders set the tone and are responsible for embodying the culture we are all striving to create. You must be seen proactively engaging with students and faculty to build your own personal and meaningful relationships and this will generate a culture of openness from the top down. Administrators may consider offering and announcing an open-door policy, as this an easy way to start to shift perceptions and begin to form these relationships across campus. Students will see this as breaking down a hierarchy that separates you from the rest of the campus community.

Campus leaders can also drive the campus culture forward by prioritizing strategic institutional investments that include relationship-centric programming. Strong student-alumni networks, diversity programming which integrates cultural communities, and networking events which link students, faculty, and administrators can contribute to an inclusive culture that moves beyond tolerance and truly values relationship building.

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” As we move forward and recognize the importance of holistic education, focusing beyond academics, campuses are presented with a unique opportunity to foster a relationship-centric culture. As we continue on this academic year, whatever your role, take note of the relationship culture on your campus and evaluate your contributions. As you begin making plans for the year ahead, be clear about the role you play in shaping the culture on your campus. Let’s all prioritize building and encouraging strong relationships with those around us.