When You Feel Like You’re Short on Stakes

The following is a reflection essay written by one of our Peer Career Coaches, Xochi Castel, a second-year Bachelor of Architecture student. I’d invited her to shadow me on a Chicago Architecture Foundation river cruise booked by IIT Alumni Association — primarily for the sights, and also for the chance to chat up some of our alumni who might become helpful contacts for job-seeking students and grads. Xochi’s story is a great example of some benefits of taking a risk outside one’s comfort zone.


The architecture river boat cruise was an event hosted by Illinois Tech as an alumni-week event. I had been invited just five hours before the start of it. While David Work was telling me about what to expect, if I agree to go, I couldn’t help but feel like I wouldn’t fit in. It was an event meant for alumni, meaning people way older than me. I have previously been to events before, where I was the youngest in the crowd and I was addressed as such. When I would try to join a conversation at these past events, the adults would either change the subject, or ignore me so that they didn’t have to. Of course, this alienates me from the entire group and I feel invisible.

So, naturally, before arriving to the Riverwalk for the boat cruise, I believed I was going to be alone the entire night, just listening to the tour guide because I didn’t fit in with the older crowd. I almost turned down the offer to go because I didn’t think anyone was going to be my age and thus share my interests. My expectations were beginning to be true, as David began to make conversation with the President of AIAS, Dawn Schuette. They made small talk at first but it soon turned into comfortable conversations, as if they’ve known each other for years. This, I believe, is what networking is all about.

From my experience at the river cruise, I narrowed down a great method for networking into a two-step process. The first step in making connections is to accept an invitation to an event. By doing this you are allowing yourself to meet new people, at the very least. The second step is to start (or join) a conversation at the event. Whether it is a social gathering, a fancy sit-down dinner, or an organization’s general meeting, make sure you introduce yourself and begin to loosen up around these people. The more you talk, the more you will be remembered. In the case of the river cruise, David and I followed around Dawn and held quiet conversations. This being a more social event, the conversations ranged from architectural history to moving into a new neighborhood. Even though I was not even 20 years within the age range of the group that I spoke to, I felt comfortable holding a conversation with them because of the way that they spoke to me. Dawn and David are easy-going people who did not feel pressured to have formal conversations, and I appreciate them for that. And because of the endless conversations we had, we became friends at the end of the cruise. We exchanged information and I’m sure that if I ever want to have a conversation with Dawn, she would be more than willing to meet with me.

At the end of the cruise, the older woman sitting next to me began speaking Spanish to a woman sitting behind her. I am fluent in Spanish and English so, by instinct, I kept my ears open. I overheard the woman say to the other in Spanish: “I did not understand a single word that woman said, but it is lovely out here.” It was funny at first but then I realized that she went the entire tour without learning anything about Chicago. I began a conversation with her by asking where she is from. After that, we talked about her experience in Chicago so far and her plans for the rest of the week. She was travelling with her friend all around the U.S. and neither of them spoke or understood much English. This is surprising to me because from the beginning I thought I would be singled out because of my age, but this woman was at an even greater disadvantage because she didn’t understand the language. Had I spoken to her at the start of the cruise, I could’ve been her translator. What a missed opportunity that was but I learned that everyone has their own doubts and can feel alienated in their own ways. And if you just take the effort to speak out loud, you might discover that you’re not alone.

How to Play the Networking Game
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