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How to build meaningful connections inside and outside the classroom

Learn practical strategies to connect with peers, industry leaders and alumni during your MBA, ensuring a robust professional network for your future successes

July 4, 2024

Does the mere thought of professional networking fill you with dread? To get the most out of your MBA program, you’ll want to overcome that discomfort and lean into the practice. Fewer environments offer more fertile ground for networking than an MBA program, and the right connections can open doors to exciting career growth opportunities upon graduation—and beyond. The good news is, even if you’re squeamish about the process, you’ll have ample opportunity to learn, practise and eventually even excel at networking before you graduate. 

When choosing an MBA program, be sure to consider how it may expand your professional reach. But, ultimately, building a strong professional network is within grasp if you proactively work at it. Here are some tips to keep in mind.  

Have the right mindset

“A lot of students feel awkward about networking because they think of it as a self-serving activity, like using people to get ahead, and something that is not authentic,” says Liz Lemon-Mitchell, director of advancement and operations at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) faculty of management. The program’s first-year professional development courses include training sessions on networking that reframe the practice as an opportunity to help others. 

Even still, overcoming the discomfort of walking into a room full of strangers and striking up a conversation can be easier said than done. Barry Wright, dean of the Goodman School of Business at Brock University, advises hesitant students to slowly build their confidence: “Start at one of our internal events where you will be supported in the process and build the confidence to participate in other events and opportunities.”

Leverage in-class opportunities

The connections you make in the classroom can be as crucial as those in the business community. After you graduate, your professional opportunities and connections expand over time—so do those of your classmates. Sharing your networks among alumni after graduation can be instrumental in paving new avenues to advance your career. 

Meeting industry professionals in class is also a given. When registering for courses, look for those that provide opportunities to work side-by-side with business leaders to work on real business issues. 

“In the classroom, our students complete experiential learning projects where they work with community partners to solve real-world business problems in their organizations,” says Wright, providing an ideal environment to establish rapport with business contacts that can continue after convocation. 

At UNB, some electives are offered by senior industry practitioners. “Students work closely throughout the year with these individuals, as well as the many professional contacts they introduce into the classroom,” says Lemon-Mitchell.

Participate in university events 

Business schools recognize how crucial professional connections are to the success of their graduates, so they prioritize providing opportunities to connect students with the business community.

Competitions can be particularly fruitful for making an impression on business leaders—sometimes from across the country. UNB’s International Business and Entrepreneurship Centre coordinates two competitions each year, including the Apex Startup Challenge for student entrepreneurs across Canada. 

Not all efforts to network need to be so formal, however. UNB partners with Ten Thousand Coffees—a mentorship program supported by RBC. And Brock University leads a Coffee and Conversations series. “Students meet in groups of five to have informal conversations with alumni who are senior business leaders and CEOs,” says Wright. 

Networking should become a natural extension of your career, one you may even come to enjoy. Not only does it have the potential to boost your career and professional skill set, but you’ll also meet an array of interesting people and, before long, you’ll pay it forward with the grads who come after you.