Four years ago, on my high school senior class trip, my classmates and I spent a few days in Laguna Beach, surfing the teal-blue waves and pretending we were on the cast of “The Hills.”
One night we had a bonfire chat, where each student stood up and said a few parting words to the graduating class. I remember absolutely nothing—because pithy words about how successful everyone was going to be in the future felt so clichéd to me—except for the following remarks from the homecoming princess: “My father told me that the friends you meet in high school and through childhood are the only ones who are friends with you regardless of your income, your job, or your family connections. After high school, everything changes.”
That sentiment didn’t pop up in my memory until NSOP week of freshman year, when a guy in my orientation group asked me what my parents did for a living. He didn’t ask me where I was from or what I was interested in studying at Columbia. Instead, he introduced himself and went straight for the inquiry about my family background. I was speechless and overwhelmed when he rattled off the laundry list of his family’s achievements and income brackets—did we not both get into the same school? Were we not both making awkward conversation? Why were we talking about this in the first place?
Over McDonald’s McFlurries this past Saturday, my two friends and I discussed our futures—a déjà vu moment for me, as I spent much of my high school senior year discussing the future over frozen yogurt. One of my friends had just taken the LSAT exam that morning and was hoping to become a lawyer for a luxury company like Louis Vuitton Moët-Hennessy. The other friend was studying for the MCAT exam and hoped to become a dermatologist with her own cosmetics line. We half-joked about our future collaborations—a corporate lawyer, a dermatologist, and a magazine editor with mutual interests—and giggled about the convenience of having successful friends.
Full disclaimer: I’ve known these two girls since the first day of NSOP week, when we skipped the official events in the NSOP schedule and opted to stumble into our first frat party instead. I knew absolutely nothing about their family backgrounds or future aspirations—all I knew was that I didn’t want to go to every single event at NSOP, and neither did they. I couldn’t think of a more organic friendship that started with nothing but a few red Solo cups and a couple of late nights in EC.
And yet, I couldn’t help but realize that Columbia was my first encounter with the world of networking. Throughout all of high school, even though I attended classes with the sons and daughters of venture capitalists and Stanford University trustees, I didn’t recall a single moment when anyone ever talked about personal connections. We all believed—wrongfully, perhaps—that we were “great” for our personal achievements, not for what our parents could afford.
In my past three years at Columbia, I’ve tried to be a good networker, but I have trouble getting to know people unless we share a genuine mutual interest in each other as people and not as future business partners. I purposefully ignored my friends when they told me that I should meet “so-and-so because he or she has a lot of connections which will help you in the future.” More than anything, I wanted to keep work and friends separate—and in the past three years, it has become harder and harder.
I lamented about this to a friend, who—he probably should have just ignored my ranting—replied patiently, “You would have realized how important connections are no matter what school you attend. Better to realize it now than never.”
I said yes to a few more coffee dates with acquaintances.
My two friends—the future lawyer and future doctor—quickly became two of my top editors at Hoot, Columbia’s fashion magazine. When we talked about our postgraduate plans over dessert, I realized that we didn’t become friends because we wanted to use each other for our future connections—we became friends because we shared mutual interests that conveniently overlapped over the years. Also, we really love high heels and McFlurries.
“I’m a terrible networker,” I confessed to an editor at Vogue last week, not recognizing the irony as I sat in her office for an informational interview.
“No, you’re not. You’re sitting here with me right now. You know what you should do? Go with your gut. Get to know people because you want to get to know them, not because you think they’ll be of some worth to you in the future,” she replied.
As a senior, the future rarely escapes my thoughts. The topic pops up at conversations at cocktail parties, on the phone with parents, and at 1020 on Thursdays. More and more people whom I haven’t seen since freshman year are reaching out to me in hopes that we have some mutual interests that will be of benefit to our future careers. Two years ago, I would have scoffed at these proposals and conversations.
This year, I will say yes to everything—not because I want to find people worth knowing, but instead because everyone is worth knowing.
Noel Duan is a Columbia College senior majoring in anthropology and concentrating in art history. She is the co-founder of Hoot Magazine. You Write Like a Girl runs alternate Wednesdays.
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