When the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP) offered MIT sophomores the chance to learn and practice networking skills in a special session last year, the students almost unanimously cited it as a not-to-be-missed opportunity.
This year, another 215 students mingled at a "mocktail" party on Feb. 16 at the Stata Center with 50 alumni and others affiliated with MIT, including employers of UPOP interns. Geared to simulate the social situations in which networking and other business interactions occur, the event followed an interactive presentation led by Jodi R. Smith of Mannersmith, an etiquette consulting firm.
Devon Biondi, UPOP program manager for Student Services and Alumni Relations, said that Smith teaches skills the students haven't had the opportunity to learn before. "Experience gives people confidence, but if you're a sophomore and don't have work experience in your intended field, how do you get it?" asked Biondi.
"She taught us many common-sense strategies that students don't normally think of using in a networking situation when we're under pressure," said Gita Srivastava, a sopohomore in mechanical engineering.
The alumni and friends of MIT who attended represented a variety of industries, including finance, engineering, law, biotechnology, and nonprofit and government organizations.
"It's valuable for engineers and business people to be able to handle a range of business networking situations successfully," said alumnus Paul Edelman (Ph.D. 1978), managing director of Edelman & Associates, an executive search firm. "I really enjoyed interacting with the students and also tuned up professional skills that will be useful the next time I am at a conference, a professional meeting or even a party."
Smith helped prepare participants with exercises that included creating a "tagline" (a quick introductory summary about yourself to initiate conversation), shaking hands effectively, and entering and exiting discussions gracefully.
"The skills practiced at the event are essential not only to students preparing to find internships for the summer but also for everyone involved in day-to-day business," said Bondi.
"It taught me a lot about the importance of nonverbal communication, how seemingly small details such as body language and name tag placement can can make a huge difference in professional interactions," said Bradley Edwards, a sophomore in electrical engineering and computer science.
No alcohol was served at this party, but when students are faced with professional networking events at which alcohol is served later in life, Smith advised them to avoid or minimize their drinking.
"Consuming alcohol rarely makes networking better," said Smith. To emphasize the point, she mentioned that January is a busy month for her firm because companies hire her to advise employees who behaved inappropriately at holiday parties.
The networking event was part of the program's Spring Professional Development Seminar Series, in which employers and MIT alumni volunteer to coach students through the recruiting process and professional development.
UPOP exposes students to the multifaceted nature of professional engineering practice and prepares them to make a smooth transition from academe to the workplace. It is administered from the office of the Dean of Engineering; the program has been funded as an initial five-year pilot and is currently in its fourth year.