How Colleges Can Cultivate Relationships to Improve the Student Experience

Tuesday, November 7, 2023 - Author Ana Homayoun joins hosts Jeff Selingo and Michael Horn to discuss her new book Erasing the Finish Line: The New Blueprint for Success Beyond Grades and College Admission. They ask what other measures for success should we consider for a student in higher ed beyond academics. The conversation explores expanding one’s social circles, networking, finding mentors, and developing life management skills. The episode is sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Ascendium Education Group.

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Author Ana Homayoun joins hosts Jeff Selingo and Michael Horn to discuss her new book Erasing the Finish Line: The New Blueprint for Success Beyond Grades and College Admission. They ask what other measures for success should we consider for a student in higher ed beyond academics. The conversation explores expanding one’s social circles, networking, finding mentors, and developing life management skills. The episode is sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Ascendium Education Group.

Key Moments

00:00 - Introduction

05:41 - Intentional College Experiences and Connections

09:31 - College Social Connections and Their Impact On Economic Mobility

16:34 - College Students' Soft Skills and How Colleges Can Help

20:12 - Redefining Success In College And Beyond

25:33 - Education And Career Goals With Ana Homayoun

26:39 - College Students' Networking Challenges and Strategies

31:34 - Networking, Career Advice, and Hands-on Learning.

35:46- Intergenerational Relationships and Connecting Students Across Differences

Links We Share

ERASING THE FINISH LINE: The New Blueprint For Success Beyond Grades and College Admissions

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Ana Homayoun:

Colleges really need to help students move beyond transactional socialization. And this has happened years and years, because a lot of times, adults will come to me and they'll say, "Oh, this kid contacted me. I've never met them. They contacted me on LinkedIn and said: 'Will you be my mentor?'" And then, the adult's like, "I don't know how to respond," and the kid just doesn't know, or the student just doesn't know where to start.

Michael Horn:

That was Ana Homayoun, the author of a new book that looks at student success beyond grades and college admissions. And today, she's our guest on Future U.


This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low-income backgrounds reached their education and career goals. For more information, visit

This episode is brought to you by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, working to eliminate race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of student success through innovation, data and information, policy, and institutional transformation.

Jeff Selingo:

I'm Jeff Selingo.

Michael Horn:

And I'm Michael Horn.

Jeff Selingo:

So, Michael, there's a theme that seems to be developing in some of our early episodes, and that theme that seems to be developing on this show and probably started when we had Lisa Damour, who's this clinical psychologist and author on last season, it's that student success has moved beyond tools and tactics like we have discussed here over the years, such as intrusive advising and technology that track students with a red or yellow or green warning and microgrants that help bridge the gap and financial aid like they do at Georgia State. Those things get at the academic and financial places, but it's clear in talking to Lisa and then President Jim Gash of Pepperdine in a recent episode that social wellbeing and resilience are also critical to student success.

When we look back on college, student success isn't about what you learned in Macroeconomics 101 or that psychology class. It's really about the people you meet, classmates, professors, student, staff members, and peers. So, colleges have often left those encounters to chance, and now I think they need to be much more deliberate in building the framework and opportunities for students to develop these muscles.

And we're going to be talking about that and more with Ana Homayoun whose author of four books, her newest being Erasing the Finish Line: The New Blueprint for Success Beyond Grades and College Admissions, which was published by Hachette in August. Now, Ana is an education consultant who works with students and families and founder of a nonprofit that has developed an executive function skills curriculum. She also comes to us as an expert, unlike me, who as an author often comes to this work as a journalist who talks to the experts. She has a master's in counseling and also serves on the board of directors for Cristo Rey San Jose in California.

Ana, welcome to Future U.

Ana Homayoun:

Well, thanks for having me.

Jeff Selingo:

So, as Michael knows and listeners of this podcast are probably sick of me talking about now, the two basic elements of the student experience in college that I believe are critical are belonging and purpose. And you write in your book about how we can better support kids and creating meaningful connections that boost their wellbeing and improve their lives. And your focus is on something you called supporters and clarifiers who as you write could be mentors or sponsors. Can you tell us a little bit more about supporters and clarifiers?

Ana Homayoun:

Sure. So, supporters is a term that I've used for a long time to talk about friends who are supportive and we think as adults that our kids will find friendships of people that are supportive. But one of the intro stories in the book is really about that frenemy culture that comes from this attitude around erasing the finish line. So, college admissions and talking about, "Okay, where are you going to go to college? Where are you going to apply? And who's getting in and who's not getting in?" It really changes the supportiveness of friendships. And so, what we want to do is really help kids understand that supporters are people that are supportive, that are your peers.

Clarifiers are adults that provide clarity. And so, as I mentioned in the book, they can either be mentors or sponsors and it's really important to make this delineation. It's one of the things I talk about a lot. Now, mentors are great. They provide mentorship. They're a trusted adult that you can go to for advice and they could be a tutor. They could be a family friend, but sponsors, we use this word sponsorship a lot in business. And we don't use it with students and we need to, because especially when it comes to economic mobility, sponsorship is key.

And what I mean by sponsorship is that you as an adult, as a trusted adult, provide opportunities to change the economic wellbeing of a student. And what that means is maybe you help them get a job, maybe you help them interview for a job, maybe you show them opportunities they didn't know existed. And in the book, I talk about in the chapter on levers, I talk about this thing where there's a lot of organizations that really focus on mentorship and do a good job and then become very disappointed when the students they've mentored through middle school and high school and college don't have jobs that can pay the bills or provide economic mobility.

And I've pointed out in many occasions to really help them understand, "No, it's also about this idea of sponsorship and taking it one step further."

Michael Horn:

Super interesting. So, switching gears into the college experience, it seems like a lot of how your college experience goes can come down to some element of chance. You might live next to that student in a dorm who becomes your lifelong friend, or you might take a class because it just happens to fit into your schedule and then suddenly you get to meet that person who becomes your mentor and you've really developed your passion. Or in my case, all my friends were history majors and so I said, "Sure, why not," and went the same path.

But I'm curious how colleges in your view can make these development of supporters and clarifiers, not leave it to chance, in effect, make it much more and intentional and we know students are going to come out with these people in their lives.

Ana Homayoun:

I love this question because it's so important right now specifically as kids are going to college and maybe some of their high school experience has been truncated over the last few years because of the pandemic. The colleges really need to help students move beyond transactional socialization. And this has happened years and years, because a lot of times, adults will come to me and they'll say, "Oh, this kid contacted me. I've never met them. They contacted me on LinkedIn and said: 'Will you be my mentor?'" And then, the adult's like, "I don't know how to respond," and the kid just doesn't know, or the student just doesn't know where to start.

So, we actually have to come from a place of empathy and backup that we need to help kids and young adults and college students learn how to make and maintain relationships, whether they're friendships, whether they're mentorships. And it's a two-way street. So, not only do you want to have a mentor, but this person wants to be a mentor. And it happens over time. It doesn't normally happen. Oftentimes, I talk about in the book, the people that I thought would be great mentors or sponsors weren't, but the people that over time, 10 years later, people come back and you establish these relationships from an authentic place.

And what colleges can do, the first thing is really cultivating opportunities for students to work on different projects together throughout the year. Because we have a lot of orientation programs that are this one week, throw them all together, and then you don't remember anything that happened the first six weeks of college, right? You're like eight weeks in and you're like, "Okay, I'm going to now hang out with all the people who look like me, act like me, went to my school." And what we need to do is create lower barriers for entry for these face-to-face introductions that are working on a common project.

And so, colleges can really think through this of like look at that orientation week and spread that throughout the four years. Because a lot of times, students will tell me, "I'm going out to socialize on a Friday night." I don't really feel comfortable with the way the socialization is taking place in college with parties, but there's no other alternative. So, creating opportunities for doing things earlier in the evening that are not centered on just the social piece that there's a collective projects.

But the other piece, and I think this is really key as well, is creating a culture of connection with alumni. Because great clarifiers could be alumni specifically for a student that may come from a community where they're now trying to go to college to expand their access and opportunity, thinking about how do we get our alumni to be excited about this and reconnect on campus regularly. And some colleges do this better than others as you both know really well.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah, and I think the interesting thing about that is that alumni want to be involved, but sometimes they can't necessarily provide jobs or they can't give money the way the institution might want to. So, this gives them a role and a critical role because sometimes, students just need to talk through careers and jobs and issues, especially if they're in a field that they may not be familiar with that they didn't grow up around as you mentioned. I want to talk about connections a little bit more because you write about this thing that I found really interesting, about these multiple circles of connection. And you say that much of kids' angst is rooted in overlapping friendships.

I'm not a kid, and I see this in my own life. Michael and I were in Idaho recently and the president we were visiting knew a colleague that I worked with at The Chronicle of Higher Education. As they say, it's a small world, especially in higher education where you have these overlapping relationships. Could you tell our listeners about these multiple circles of connection and what are the key ways institutions can support the development of those during college?

Ana Homayoun:

So, this is such an important point, this idea of multiple circles of overlapping connection, non-overlapping connections is one of the key pieces that they're non-overlapping, and we'll talk about that in a second. But this idea is it takes us through elementary, middle, high school, college, and beyond in a really important way. So, when kids are younger, especially in middle school and high school, having multiple circles of non-overlapping connections. So, different friends, different places that you feel a sense of connection. And it could be a summer camp. It could be your traveling soccer team. It could be the robotics, that they don't all know or all hang out with one another.

And one of the challenges we find is that as friendships naturally transition in middle school and high school and all the research shows that, if all your friends are from the same group and something doesn't work out in some way, shape, or form, it becomes a be-all end-all. And the one thing that parents say keeps them up at night is their children's social dynamics when something goes wrong. So, the more that we can act preventatively ahead of time, so we talk about finding different ways that they feel connected. And it could be like cousins could be one of them, could be family friends.

What has happened over the last few years is we've become so much more insular. We do vacations with the kids we go to school with, with the kids that are also on the traveling soccer team. And so, there's so much overlap. And so, I want people to expand beyond that. And that was so interesting when I went back to interview my former students who are now in their early 30s, which is part of the book Erasing the Finish Line, is that the kids that were the most successful in terms of economic mobility were very comfortable moving in different spaces in different places and had multiple circles of non-overlapping connections.

And so, what we want to think about is how do we support that at a very early age of thinking that we can have multiple places we feel connected. Your religious youth group could be one, people in school, people out of school, and it acts as a preventative, but then when you get older, it also acts as an expansive opportunity.

Jeff Selingo:

So, Ana, if students come to college without these multiple circles of non-overlapping circles of connection, how can colleges support the development to make sure that that doesn't happen in college, that they have multiple levels of this and they're not connecting? How can colleges encourage that?

Ana Homayoun:

I think this is a great question because here's what I've seen happen, and I'm going to take it from the first gen low-income student perspective. You have a lot of programs that have, for the last few years, really focused on let's make sure these students feel connected on campus. Let's bring them early, let's assimilate, let's help them feel supported. And these are so important. And part of the thing is I do the work, I work with kids. I work with young adults still, and I also mentor a lot of first gen low-income students.

So, this is something I saw and I've dealt with very recently, that the student then becomes so comfortable with this group of students that they connected with in the first six weeks or the summer before that they really over four years do not venture out. And when they go to graduate, their network is super small.

And so, what schools can do is create multiple opportunities for face-to-face where the barrier for entry is lower, whether it's free, like a free opportunity at the university museum that's 4:00 in the afternoons and they provide food or something like that, that it creates a gathering space. Or again, these projects that are not based on background or knowledge or ability but are just opportunities to connect because students want to connect but that initial face-to-face conversation can be so hard. That also means connecting with alumni.

So, one of these things around multiple non-overlapping connections is also intergenerational relationships. So, how do we help young people connect with people that are not just their peers and practice having relationships with people that are much older and may have different wisdom or connections or opportunities.

Michael Horn:

So, on a recent episode, Jeff and I were discussing the future of legacy admissions, which I think will overlap in an interesting way from where you just took that question. And I raised the point that with legacies on campus, ideally social capital can be transferred, right? Especially to those first gen students that they can share in their connections and things of that nature. And then, Jeff immediately argued with me and said basically that do legacies and first gen students really even socialize together. So, maybe those benefits are not conferred. And I guess I want to know, is there a way that colleges can make sure that Jeff's vision doesn't materialize?

Ana Homayoun:

You both bring up really important points because I agree with both of them in the spaces of the opportunities that happen. And I was a student where my parents were immigrants, and when I went to college, there was a lot I didn't know. And what was really beneficial to me was being comfortable in different spaces with different people, but that took a lot of effort. And so, what I think is really helpful for people to see is that social capital, you used the word transferred, but then shared. I'm going to focus on this idea of being shared. Because a lot of times with erasing the finish line, the whole concept is people become fear-based and scarcity-based, and gosh, if I share my social capital, they're going to take it.

But it's really this idea of sharing, and I love that you say that. So, to me, this is where being comfortable and making connections across differences can be really important because I think back to the opportunity insights research on friending bias that came out last year and where they really talked about how we as a society tend to make friendships across class lines, but for economic mobility, and I would also argue for financial stability. They didn't look at this, but I'm saying that to be able to make friendships beyond just the class or the background that you are really in this new world is critically important.

And I'll give one example. I was talking to my sister about this. And technology has really broken this all open. If you think about the tech sector, my office is in Silicon Valley, maybe 20 years ago you could find, or 40 years ago really it was the network of your family and your family friends. But now, you need to be able to connect with the software engineer, the recruiter, the front of the house, and be able to make those connections. And some of that comes from this idea of feeling comfortable across differences, which I also think is very key for what you're talking about around social capital.

Jeff Selingo:

So, Ana, I want to switch gears here because there's another anecdote that came from Idaho when Michael and I were just there. And there was a board member, we were speaking to a board at a college out there. And this board member was asking about the soft skills of today's students. And you write in your book that, and I'll quote for the book here, that connection and communication skills are too often overlooked in students who are seen to have high cognitive intelligence.

And it's interesting that when I talk to faculty members at selective colleges and universities, one thing that they tell me that was a big impact of the pandemic is that they feel like those skills are really lacking in students, right? They don't know how to write an email. They don't show up for meetings. They just can't do those basic functioning skills.

So, what happened? Can we blame even more of this on the pandemic? And more important though, again, colleges are dealing with this, given our listeners, many of them work at colleges, universities, what can they do about it?

Ana Homayoun:

Yeah. I want to back up and say that I don't think the pandemic was the reason. I think this is tied into the culture from long before then, but it amplified it. Here's why. Much of this ties into the culture I highlight in Erasing the Finish Line that when I ask a student how they're doing, and I talked about that in a book, The Myth of the Perfect Girl too, and they would say, "I'm doing great, I got all A's, or I got 500 likes on my latest post that we create this culture where these accomplishments reflect how we are, and parents do this as well. You ask parents how their kid is doing in school and they're say, "Well, Johnny has all A's and so things are good."

But yet when we talk about the connection and the ability to be... the first pillar in the book is systems and executive functioning skills. Just yesterday I had an email from a parent who said, "My son is a senior. He's applying to college. He has a four or five. He has a 1590. He's not a great communicator, and he's really terrible with executive functioning skills. And so, none of the application part is done and what can you..." and I said, "These are two very key skills for going to college and thriving in college."

And if you don't have them when you get there, this now puts the burden a lot of times on colleges as you're seeing, these students are now arriving at college without these skills. And I'm getting more and more calls from college parents, parents of college students saying, "We really just focus on getting them in." And yet they don't have these skills. So, what can colleges do to your point? From a college perspective, here is where the classroom dynamic is key. And I really believe offering faculty training and coaching and mentoring around this is so critical. And I'll give you an example.

My sister teaches at Santa Clara University. She teaches Ethnic Studies, so she teaches a course that's required but also really brings up a lot of issues for students around identity and opportunities. And so, this is the first time a lot of times students are talking through these ideas. And one of the things she's very good at is creating groups in our class that she puts extra care in that the student is both supported and stretched, but also provides this face-to-face, small group experience week after week.

And I think that when you're thinking about students and what are the skills we want students to get through college and when they're coming out, you talk about learning how to write an email, talking to a professor, knowing when to ask for help. These are skills that actually, it's not an orientation. It's a first two years of a college experience that we really need to critically focus on this.

Jeff Selingo:

And do we really think that these are so critical though to success in college or will they just come with time? Some of these skills will come to students in college, some might come right after college. I'll tell you one thing that I really like about my daughter's middle school is that they really encourage students to have this agency, right? And it's amazing to me this year without prompting from us, she emailed one of her teachers with a question.

Now I didn't have email in eighth grade, but I wonder if we sometimes look back on our own childhood that maybe we didn't have these skills either and it just took us just as long to develop them. I'm trying to get a sense of how worried we really should be about this in college.

Ana Homayoun:

It's a great question, but I think that so much of long-term success comes from systems, one of the first pillars around how do you organize, plan, prioritize, start and complete tasks, and are adaptable when things don't go as planned. And more and more in my office this year has been very interesting. I've gotten so many calls from families whose student has gone to college, a elite high level school, and is floundering because they don't have these life management skills that again, they didn't get the practice around conflict management, practice around dealing with problems in the same way.

Because two of their years were spent maybe online, maybe much different than what we would say developmentally. But I love what's happening in your daughter's middle school because even though we didn't have email and I'm part of that generation that didn't have email in middle school, we did see our teachers face to face and we went and spoke with them. There was a lower barrier for entry and there weren't things online. You actually had to turn in the piece of paper. There were these many transactions that always happened that are less and less now that you assign the homework online.

You collect the homework online. You do a chat on Blackbaud instead of the in-person. So, what are the things that we can do to recreate this opportunity to practice agency? And you're right. I think about this as a kid whose parents were immigrants, there's a lot of agency that you have when your parents aren't navigating the education, didn't go to school in the US undergrad, so they didn't navigate that educational system. And your daughter is like having the opportunity to do that from a young age. So, it becomes second nature.

Michael Horn:

So, I want to wrap up with a question that feels to me has been lurking underneath a lot of the conversation in your answers. And I'm wondering if you can speak to how perhaps we ought to redefine measures of success more broadly and if that can shift us as a society away from this college or bust mentality. It feels, I guess to me like there's this zero-sum deposit of sum argument in your book as well, and in frankly a lot of your answers.

And so, I'm just curious how you'd argue that we can make that shift for individuals in our society.

Ana Homayoun:

That's such an important question, and I love that we're finishing on that because in erasing the finish line, you pick up on this. I introduced these four pillars, systems, connection, perspective, and acceptance as a way of reframing us away from the comparison culture that focuses on this zero-sum argument and focuses on this fear-based, scarcity mentality that drives all that achievement hyper-focus right now and creates that faulty finish line around college admissions.

What I want is that we really think about allowing ourselves to have a new framework that looks at success based on these habits and routines and underlying skills that are throughout the book. The book is really practical. What can you put in your place as a family? What can you put in your place as a school or university? What are things that you can do to support students? Because here's the great thing.

One of the things that was so positive for me going back and interviewing my students from 15 to 20 years ago who are now in their early 30s was that I was able to see that when we focused on the habits, the success came greater than anybody ever imagined. Parents of some of these students were like, "Is my kid ever going to get off the couch? Is it normal for him to spend the entire weekend as a freshman boy off the couch?"

And these are kids that created their own pathway and their own blueprint for success and have now far exceeded. I remember one dad who is literally like, "We don't even know what happened to our son," because he found his thing and he had those underlying habits. And what I also want to do is when you focus on the habits, the success can and will come, but it will also come in a way that may be different than expected and often better.

I've been speaking to schools, my intro talks around this book, and what I find a lot is parents are like, "Whoa, but what about the test scores and the excellence? Are you saying just be okay with B minuses?" And I'm like, "No, what I'm saying is let's move away from this fear-based, scarcity mentality that if this kid gets something, my kid won't." And let's see that we know the research is showing that there are plenty of jobs for young people. There are fewer people coming in that are retiring.

So, let's really give all kids these skills so we can navigate this next generation and support them even better.

Jeff Selingo:

Ana, thank you so much for joining us on Future U. And just quickly, how can our listeners find you?

Ana Homayoun:

Sure. So, they can visit, and that leads to my website and continue the conversation. So, thank you so much for having me.

Jeff Selingo:

It was great to have you, and we'll be right back on Future U.

This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low-income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. Ascendium believes that system level change and a student-centric approach are important for our nation's efforts to boost post-secondary education and workforce training opportunities. That's why their philanthropy aims to remove systemic barriers faced by these learners, specifically first generation students, incarcerated adults, veterans, students of color, adult learners, and rural community members. For more information, visit

Michael Horn:

This episode is being brought to you by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Today's college students are more than just students. They're workers, parents and caregivers, and neighbors. And colleges and universities need to change to meet their changing needs. Learn more about the Foundation's efforts to transform institutions to be more student-centered at

We're back on Future U after a really informative interview with Ana Homayoun. And as I was listening to her, Jeff, I was just struck by how much of college comes down to chance in terms of forming relationships. That seems obvious maybe to say, but when Ana was describing how colleges really need to help students move beyond "transactional socialization", it really resonated. I think it's a really important point. And as you know, Adam Grant, a few years back wrote this piece in the New York Times where he said he was "stunned by the lengths that people will go to make a connection with a big name."

And his examples in the article he wrote are both cringe-worthy, as well as something you probably resonated with when you read it. But for colleges to make these relationships that go beyond the transactional, it seems like a big lift for them. So, what are your ideas and how they can help students?

Jeff Selingo:

It's a great question, Michael, because I've met many recent college grads who don't know how to develop a network or to be honest with you, actually get a job. I recall speaking to a group of students at Boston University's College of Communication a few years ago about the job market. And at one point our conversation turned to networking, and I was peppered with questions from them about a catch-22 that new graduates often face. How do they build a professional network if they never held a full-time job? But they really envisioned building this network. It's just another hoop to jump through like every other hoop that they've jumped through to that point, for example, getting into college.

In other words, they really imagine building a network as a transaction. They trade business cards or blast out LinkedIn invites or shake as many hands as possible at alumni events. They don't see networking where it's most helpful, especially I think to people just starting out as an experience to learn or develop relationships over time. So, as I think about what I told those students in Boston that day about starting their network, there are a couple of points that I wanted to bring out here. One was asking people about their career stories.

I think that colleges offer plenty of opportunities to network with alumni who maybe had the same major, internships and part-time jobs you land in. You get to work with people of various generations who are already doing the jobs you might want someday. In such circumstances, instead of asking alumni or coworkers for routine career advice, ask them to tell you their career stories. In my experience, people love to talk about how they got to where they are today.

And in doing so, I think people will get the advice they were initially seeking, but also hear how they construct their narratives. I always tell students, "Listen for how they make the connections between what they learned and where they learned it, and ultimately about how they apply their learning in different jobs." You also can use your network as an insight guide to an organization.

So, for example, say you're a candidate for a job and someone at that organization is in your network, instead of asking them to put in a good word for you, which always happens as we know, right? Ask them for lessons that only insiders can provide, the best departments to work for, the bosses to avoid, and strategies that the organization's pursuing that perhaps can help you stand out in an interview. Also, ask your people in the network who used to work at that organization you're considering and ask them the same questions.

There's also another reason to seek out former employees. What are they doing now and what did they do in that previous job that got them there? And I think this approach is particularly useful for college students searching for internships because internships really have shifted from a nice to have line on a resume to a critical component to an undergraduate's career.

And then, finally, I think less is more. I think students seem to think that the size of their networks matter the most and it's really around quality. I'm amazed after I speak to students, how many email me or send me LinkedIn connections having really never met me after the talk or even asked me a question during the talk. And I understand that most people are just a click away, but we also know that a vast majority of those emails are ignored. Instead, I think students really should focus on building the foundation of a network that will last them a lifetime.

And as Adam Grant pointed out in that piece you cited, no one actually mingles at these events. Instead, we just end up hanging out with our old friends.

Michael Horn:

Which is fun in its own right, but often the way it goes. And incidentally, that Adam Grant piece always makes me feel better frankly. And listening to your reflections makes me feel better and less strange that I don't feel like sending a flurry of LinkedIn requests to people that I've just heard at some random conference, given the number of requests that I'm always getting from people that I have no idea who they are. But your reflections, Jeff, bring up just a couple thoughts for me. One, I remember Derek Thompson writing that most of the career advice that you get from individuals you meet is pretty garbage.

It's just not that helpful because it's not that considered and so forth. And your idea of actually just asking the individuals that you interact with like what's your career story, it brings to mind something Clay Christensen always said, which was be interested in others. Ask them about their lives because at least that way, you have something in common. You're both interested in them. And maybe that's not as much transferable learning, but at least you might develop a real relationship around them. And so, I think that's something that we could all learn from.

The second thought I had was in the book that I'm working on where I recently submitted the first draft around how to help you change jobs and figure out what you want to do next. One of our techniques is to give a lot more structure to those awkward informational interviews that we've always been told to do. But the trick is though, you can only do those, what we ask you to do in those informational interviews after you've put in some work on the front end to learn some things about what makes you really tick as an individual, what drives your energy and what can you really contribute that can be of value to the person that you're connecting with.

And that falls back, I think, on some of Adam Grant's reflections that achievements are important for someone to really want to network with you in the first place. Now, I am thinking about where I want to take this, Jeff, but it strikes me that some of this random connection that we see, let's see what sticks behavior by colleges. Yale does this, right? They just put you in a dorm with a bunch of people from a cross section of different backgrounds and they try to manufacture connections right across difference, if you will.

And Ana really talked about spreading orientation out and having students from different backgrounds get to work together in some meaningful way on say projects, for example. But it brought up the next question, Jeff, which is like, what might those projects actually look like? Because you don't want to assign a bunch of eye-rolling activities, if you will.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah. Clearly, it has to be deep work, Michael, and I'm thinking of Cal Poly for example, or Cal State Fresno, which are both campuses I wrote about last year in whitepapers about digital transformation. Now, these are digitally oriented projects, but I think the ideas here can be extended across the curriculum. Let's take Cal Poly for example. They created this digital transformation hub or DX Hub as they call it. And what it does is it solves real-world problems for public sector organizations using cloud computing. And it started with just a few student employees, and now it has more than two dozen student employees working with customers that range from community colleges to the state attorney general's office to Vandenberg Space Force Base.

So, for example, students recently consulted on a project with the World Bank to identify school buildings in Africa that might be prone to earthquake damage by using AI to scan images of buildings. Meanwhile, Cal State Fresno opened up its hub of digital transformation and innovation to provide an outlet for students to work to intern to volunteer on university projects related to digital transformation. So, they help build, for example, Fresno State's AI Chatbot. They built a virtual 360-degree campus tour. They're working on a new platform for internal email communications among other projects.

And I think that these projects also fulfill something we've talked about before, and that's hands-on learning. And also, at these two universities, the projects are across the curriculum. So, you're bringing together students from all over the place and they help the university fill their own workforce needs. And I think you're also developing those intergenerational relationships that Ana talked about are just not happening enough with today's students.

Michael Horn:

Yeah, that's a really good point, Jeff, and that meaningful projects connected to that last point. I mean, Ana mentioned specifically that we need to help young people connect not only with their peers. They're relatively good at that, but practice having relationships with people who are much older and might have different life backgrounds or pieces of wisdom or even connections and opportunities themselves. How do you help students do that?

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah. And I think, Michael, about our own lives, for me, that happened through work. Growing up, my first job was in a hospital kitchen where I worked with people from not only all different educational backgrounds, but definitely different generations. And then, I worked at AAA, the American Automobile Association, where again, I worked with people from different generations, and again, we've talked about this multiple times, that teenagers are just not working as much and thus they're not having those intergenerational connections that they used to have.

There also was this interesting Twitter discussion recently, and if I could find it, we will throw it in the show notes. It was a conversation among professors of a certain age who remember their own undergraduate and graduate days where they talked about going over to professor's houses or when campus speakers would come to town to speak, and then they would go out to dinner afterwards. And they talked about how that just doesn't happen as much anymore, largely because of the risk involved of getting together younger people and older people.

And so, the question is how can we develop that mingling of generations together beyond the classroom so that maybe it doesn't happen at professor's houses anymore. Maybe it doesn't happen at dinner with probably some alcohol with the speaker came to town, but we need to have those relationships happen a couple of hours a week in a classroom.

Michael Horn:

Yeah, I think that's right, Jeff. And it's interesting you bring that example up because even in my class last year, I took the students out and I mentioned to my wife, I said, "Just want to make sure this is a space where nothing..." forget about you even being accused, just even bad behavior among the students. And so, I think it's key to have those in public spaces where there's others around, but you can still do those opportunities because they are so critical. I also think on the first one, getting to know people through work or joining, in my case, it's like a CrossFit gym in different communities. I get to meet people from all backgrounds. I think that's really important.

And I do think that there's something about just getting comfortable with the reps of being in environments with people of different backgrounds or ages or whatever it might be, and being comfortable asking the question of like, "Hey, what was your pathway to what you're doing right now?" And being okay with the fact that you don't know the answer to the question. And it's something I struggle with. I struggle asking people still today, what's your pathway to where you are now?

I sometimes feel like I'm supposed to know the answer, but just like anything you can ask. And I think questions drive conversation, and being curious is something that education institutions should be able to do a good job of modeling, Jeff.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah, I think all of this comes down to feeling comfortable across differences, which is really the focus as we know of many diversity efforts in higher ed. And I recall something, Michael, that you mentioned on a show recently when we were talking about the New York Times piece on Ron DeSantis at Yale and the role of secret societies at Yale. Because to be honest with you, I never really understood these secret societies beyond when they used to talk about them on the Gilmore Girls, which is one of my daughter's favorite new shows, or old shows, new to them.

And this idea that you said that you're bringing people together who don't know each other near the end of their undergraduate years. And the thing that really struck me is when you talked about your own relationship with these people and how these people are still some of your friends today, can that be replicated elsewhere, especially that people from maybe different economic backgrounds mingle more?

Michael Horn:

Yeah, it's a great question, Jeff. It brings to mind a former Yale college dean who observed to me that so many clubs at campuses actually work for the opposite purpose of that. They bring together people of similar backgrounds or people who have the exact same ideas on politics or whatever it might be, as opposed to bringing people together intentionally across difference. Frankly, I think back when I was on the newspaper or the radio station, those were places that also brought people together of different background. And I guess the reflection I have in retrospect is twofold.

One, some of those places can be campus jobs. The examples you just mentioned on the two campuses, they're paying students and if you pay students, you can allow more people to access those opportunities because there's not a penalty for spending time on that project as opposed to bringing in some necessary income to be able to stay afloat and help your family maybe send you to that college.

The second thing that occurs to me is that, you've brought up the secret societies. When I read Tony Jack's book a few years back now, he's a professor at BU. He was then a professor at Harvard. He wrote a lot about how students, the unintentional ways that students, or excuse me, the campuses exclude students from different backgrounds from certain experiences. And it made me, Jeff, really reflect on it. And so, a big push as an alum for my secret society has been to raise money from alums just to make sure that there's no dues for the current students so that everyone can partake in it and not be excluded.

And I think that's a really important part because so many of these experiences to mingle, frankly, are extracurricular. They're outside of the core coursework. And so, I just think we really need to be thinking about how can you make those more accessible and not unintentionally exclude people, not in a pernicious way, but just because you didn't think about the issues that they might be facing and the circumstances that they might be in.

Let's leave it there. Terrific conversation with Ana. Really appreciate having her on. And for all of you joining us, we would love to hear from you as always this season. You can find the show as a reminder on social media at Future U Podcast. And for me personally, you can also pinging me at Michael B. Horn, both on LinkedIn, the network formerly known as Twitter, X it's now called. On the web, of course, at In addition to my Substack newsletter, which you can subscribe to at

And the one thing that's not the Michael B. Horn is Instagram where I'm @mhorn1999, not sure where the 1999 came in, but you can find Jeff on LinkedIn or Facebook at Jeff Selingo, and on Instagram and X @jselingo. Or subscribe, of course, to his newsletter Next at And then, lastly, you can also reach the podcast using the contact form on our website,

And while you are on the site, a reminder to make sure to sign up for the emails from Future U. We won't inundate your box with a lot of spam. Every couple months, we come in with updates on topics we've discussed and what we're hearing from our listeners. And so, as a reminder, you can subscribe at So, with that, and until next time, keep your mind on the future of higher education.

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