For Students to Succeed, Social Capital Matter Just as Much as...

column | Student Success

For Students to Succeed, Social Capital Matter Just as Much as Skills—Here’s Why

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Jan 9, 2019

For Students to Succeed, Social Capital Matter Just as Much as Skills—Here’s Why

Let’s just debunk a big ol’ myth right now: No one, and I repeat, no one makes it entirely based on their own merit. The concept of “meritocracy” as a path to success is misguided, because so many external factors shape the privileges, opportunities and challenges that people experience in life.

As educators, when we tell students that they can do anything, we sometimes neglect something important, which is this—success doesn’t just boil down to one’s own skillsets or intrinsic abilities. It’s so much bigger and more networked than that. Alongside reading and writing, math, sciences and STEM, there’s an equally important subject deserving of attention and resources: social capital.

What Is Social Capital—and Why Should Schools Care?

Before we delve into the specifics of what “social capital” means, let me present a personal example to illustrate the concept.

Back in 2016, I was named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list for the Education category. Abstractly, such a title might appear to be a self-driven honor, one that is earned based on an individual’s entrepreneurial work or career success.

However, I’m here to tell you that I did not earn that role by myself—far from it. As has been suggested by studies by education policy analysts, many awardees tend to hail from the same circles—they attend similar colleges and universities, know “30 Under 30” recipients from past years, or work at the same organizations as the collection of judges who bestow the honor.

And I’m no different. In 2016, I knew folks who had been on the list from prior years. Previous winners are oftentimes asked by Forbes staff to submit their nominations, and those nominations take great weight. And as such, my social capital is essentially what earned me the title of “Forbes 30 Under 30”—knowing people who vouched for me, including Teach for America alumni (a program I was a part of) and acquaintances I’d connected with as far back as college. (Also, let’s not forget that I worked at EdSurge, which introduced me to a number of entrepreneurs on the business side of edtech.)

Social capital, as argued by sociologist James Coleman, is defined as those intangible resources that come embedded within interpersonal relationships or social institutions. They can be as strong as that of family members, friends, colleagues or fellow students, or as weak as distant LinkedIn connections. But when push comes to shove, a connection can mean the difference between a job and unemployment, between a college acceptance and rejection—even between sticking with high school and dropping out.

What Schools Should Do in Preparation for 2019

For many students, getting an internship or a job—arguably what education is preparing them for—is so deeply connected to their social capital. Every student, and every human, for that matter, has social capital inherently.

But how are schools supporting that development? I’ve noticed over the past year that while more and more schools are focusing on social-emotional learning, they still dedicate a majority of time to developing hard and soft skills—and oftentimes forget the social capital piece.

There are exceptions. One, for example, is the Cristo Rey network, a Catholic high school system founded in 2000 that currently includes 35 schools throughout the United States. Since its founding, Cristo Rey has implemented its Corporate Work Study Program, through which students work five days each month at organizations in law, finance, healthcare, technology industries every single year of their high school career.

Not only do these students gain earn hourly wages in tuition support for their work, but they build a collection of connections and meet potential new mentors. “Access cannot be underestimated when regarding the corporate work-study model,” says Francisco Castillo-Fierro, an administrator at Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School. “Students from underserved communities can network and build relationships with professionals, gain both hard and soft skills, and create future job opportunities for themselves.”

Other examples involve partnering with external organizations that offer social-capital support to districts through mentorship. Take iMentor, a nonprofit in Chicago, New York City, and the Bay Area that connects students to volunteer mentors.

For the past two years, Ariana Vergara, a programming specialist with YouTube Kids, has mentored students from the Bay Area with iMentor, discussing everything with them from getting into technology to Cardi B’s latest album. Last year, Vergara, a Hispanic lesbian in tech, was paired with a high school student who is also Hispanic, transgender, and potentially exploring a role in the tech industry. The impact for building that student’s social capital is especially powerful, given that Vergara is not just a mentor, but someone with whom this student connects with when it comes to ethnic and LGBTQ identity.

“I am a friend and confidante who truly encourages his own self-discovery and self-worth in all facets of his life, but especially in his voice and his potential career,” Vergara says. “This student can create his own door and path to do whatever it is that he wants in his life whether it is in tech or the music industry.”

Hard Skills + Soft Skills Are Incomplete Parts of the Equation

As a former teacher, I remember the days of coming back to the classroom in January. The bliss of holiday break was over, and now came the four-month push up until statewide testing in April. But nonetheless, here’s what I recommend.

Take the next four to six months to think about how your school and district can support students in widening their networks. Look to models like Cristo Rey as an example, or check out how others have attempted the journey. In her recently-published book “Who You Know,” researcher Julia Freeland Fisher explores school and district-based models, from Cajon Valley Unified School District’s World of Work program, which connects students to local employers and online industry experts, to Big Picture Learning schools, which partner with local employers to bring students into real-world work environments.

Do you think you have a student who can be on the Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list? I bet you do. I bet you have hundreds. Now, let’s get them all the connections they need to make that happen—and more importantly, to give them every opportunity they deserve.

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