Getting the Most Out of Your Academic Support Network

Author: Alejandro Cuellar

When did you begin to develop your own professional network? Was it something you were conscious of?

I was an undergraduate—actually it was the last day of my first college class ever. I started college later than most and my first class was English Comp at my local community college. It was my first time in a college classroom and it was the first time I ever felt like my experience and intelligence had been acknowledged (I didn’t care much for, nor did I do well in, high school). I felt genuine gratitude at the end and so I decided to wait for my professor after the last class of the semester just to shake her hand and say thank you for the experience. As I write this it seems rather brown-nose-y, but I promise I wasn’t trying to be—I just wanted Deena to know I appreciated her class. What happened next was entirely unexpected. I waited to say thanks and shook her hand as I planned to, and she grabbed me by the crook of my arm and said I was “wasting my time” and led me to the Honors Program office and introduced me to the advisor. Next thing I knew, I was in the Honors program and enrolled in Honors level courses for the coming semester. So to answer your question, I was and wasn’t conscious of it, because I didn’t do any of it to get in the Honors program or anything like that, but reaching out to her had that effect.

What are some ways that developing friendships with fellow writers have benefited you since you’ve graduated?

The best thing is talking about books. Talking about books you admire, they admire, you all admire. But there is also talking about aesthetic. Talking about writing philosophies. Talking about writing practices. Talking about love. Talking about the paradoxes of living a finite amount of time. Talking about failure. Some of the best ideas I’ve ever had have sprung from some of the best discussions I’ve ever had with my writer friends. Writers are curious by nature, and they are often fun to drink with. And when you can develop a troupe of close friends that share your admiration for craft and story so much that they enhance your love for craft and story, those are good people.

What’s the most unexpected benefit to come from your connections in academia?

The most unexpected benefit is that I make a living from it—I would have never guessed that. I’ve been lucky enough to have made good connections with faculty and they helped propel me from community college to a four-year institution, to a job right after graduation, to graduate school, and to a full time position after graduate school. I’ve been recommended and had letters written on my behalf at every level and I don’t know how I’d currently make a living without their help.

Many writers consistently complain that the publishing world is all about “who you know.” Do you think this is a fair complaint? If so, how should writers respond?

There aren’t many situations where that isn’t the case. It’s usually better to know someone and I’m sure that the publishing industry isn’t much different. Then again, publishing is a business and eventually publishing houses will want to make money. So no matter how friendly one may be with an agent or a friend of a friend of an agent and so on, I doubt they are going to take a writer or a project on unless they see merit in the work. How do you respond to that as a writer? What does that matter? I know many writers put their work online, publish them independently online etc. and those are all good avenues to pursue if the traditional publishing route seems somehow unattainable. But personally I’m not the industrious type and I’ve never been good at self-promotion. So writers should respond by writing. Keep writing.

What are some recommendations you could make to undergraduate students looking to develop networking connections that could benefit them in the future?

I think you have to be genuinely interested in the person or organization you are trying to connect with. Doing something purely for résumé padding could leave you disappointed. In other words, don’t have expectations of anyone; just enjoy the connection and relationship. By that same token, you never know who could help you in the future, so keep your mind and eyes open.