Commentary: Networking as a form of advocacy

Commentary: Networking as a form of advocacy


Author Information: Estefania Perez-Luna, BS Health Science, Benedictine University, ChicagoCHEC Research Fellow.
Author Background: Estefania is an emerging bilingual health professional with experience with immigrant Spanish-speaking communities. She is a recent first generation college graduate from Benedictine University with a degree in Health Science and aspires to become a physician with a dedication towards marginalized communities of color.
Conflict-of-interest Disclosures: There are no conflicts of interest present.
Author Correspondence: email: [email protected]
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this paper are exclusively those of the author(s) and not necessarily representative of the organizations the authors represent nor the ChicagoCHEC organization. This work is solely intended to help further disseminate information related to ChicagoCHEC’s cause and stimulate dialogue about important topics. It is not a report by ChicagoCHEC itself and must not be treated as such


Several weeks into the ChicagoCHEC Fellows Program, I came to learn several important lessons. One particularly stands out to me as a first-generation rising health professional. That is the concept of mentoring and along with it networking and self-advocacy.


I never understood what people meant by “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” but I think now I understand the importance of this. And no, it does not mean that connections are all that matters, but it means that aside from your actual qualifications (“what you know”), it is the connections you make that will connect you to opportunities.
Being part of this Research Fellows Program has made me reflect more deeply on what the underserved communities face, as it relates to health disparities. I’ve learned how inequity through unequal power and unequal life opportunities in society impact the health and well-being of not only individuals but entire communities. However, I have also reflected on how this is also true at an individual level for first-generation students like myself.


As I alluded to earlier in the idea of unequal life opportunities, first-generation students have grown upwith social inequities. Social capital, the relationships and network that an individual uses, is one example of an unequal opportunity. Students from affluent and professional backgrounds are born with a wealth of social capital. Their families early on expose them to different careers and different opportunities. Perhaps their parents are doctors, their uncle a lawyer, or their aunt a researcher. This early exposure is crucial, as it gives them a wealth of information to consider and a world to explore which helps shape their career choices. By the time they get to college, they’ve already learned what college is and most likely have developed a wide variety of knowledge on the career choices they can make. Perhaps they’ve shadowed their parents at a hospital, or have heard countless stories from their uncle about what it is like to be a lawyer. They have had these people around them to provide advice and answer questions well before they reach college.


In contrast, someone like myself from an immigrant low-income family, was born into circumstances where that wealth of social capital has been missing. I, the daughter of a woman with a first grade education and the daughter of a man with a sixth grade education, could not turn to my parents or my family to find out what college was like, what being a doctor was like, or what being an engineer was like. When I first arrived to college, I did not even know what a bachelor’s degree was or what credit hours were. However, my parents did instill in me the importance of education and with that value in mind, I decided to pursue college despite barely understanding what college was about. Luckily, when I made it to college, I found myself with a few people who saw a potential in me and invested in me enough to give guidance and advice. I did not realize it at the time but I had been mentored. I continued to strive for academic excellence and with the support and guidance of others, I became the first person in my family to graduate from college.


During college, I did learn about the idea of mentorship but I did not have a full understanding of its importance. As I have participated in this program, I have become more informed on just how important that is and I wish I had come to this realization sooner. Listening to many healthcare professionals who come from similar backgrounds tell us about their journey into a health career, I have noticed a common pattern. They all emphasize the role that other people’s mentorship played in helping them succeed not only in college but throughout the rest of their lives in their careers. It is here I came to the realization that mentorship and networking are a crucial component to succeeding in a career. I understood that people from affluent backgrounds are born with a social network around them that is not only long term, but will also continue growing to serve as a vital resource in their career path.


In contrast, first generation students who are born lacking that social network, must work to fill in those gaps of by themselves. Because no one in our families can be that support and guide, we must instead seek it out on our own externally through mentors. A special emphasis should be noted on the word mentors not mentor, meaning that a network of people is essential to succ essfully navigate one’s career. Being part of the ChicagoCHEC Fellows Program, I have learned that in mentorship there is a wide spectrum in terms of types. Mentors can vary in terms of level of engagement, for example some mentors choose to take their mentees fully under their wing and follow them closely to provide ample support and guidance. Other mentors may make referrals to connect the mentee to other people or opportunities, these are called sponsors. Other mentors are less engaged and expect the men tee to approach them when necessary; they tend to provide quick advice and guidance. Additionally, mentors can vary in terms of function. Not one mentor has all the answers and knowledge on all areas, therefore, mentors can provide guidance based on specific areas of expertise. Depending on their experience, they can provide guidance on navigating college, the technicalities of a specific career, and even on creating a vision with purpose regardless of the career choice the mentee chooses. Rather than think ing of mentorship as being one person guiding someone, mentorship needs to be thought of as a comprehensive network of people that provide support and guidance to an individual.
Although there are formal mentorship relationships established through programs in college or in high school, the vast majority of mentor-mentee relationships happen informally, in an organic way. This is where the importance of networking comes in. Due to the lack of a professional and social network that first generation students have, it is even more imperative to develop strong networking skills. When I first learned about the idea of networking, it seemed to be regarded as a skill that people in the business field needed to have. Therefore, I did not place too much emphasis on it. These past few weeks that I have been hearing of the importance of mentorship, I have come to realize just how essential they are to one’s success. Networking skills are not optional, they are an absolute requirement. In order to catch up to more afflu ent peers who have a vast networking system and have developed good networking skills early on, first-generation students must work hard to build a network, maintain it throughout time, and build strong networking skills.


First-generation students are not the only ones with this disparity. Individuals with disabilities and mental illness also face these issues. Due to societal stigmatization and the lack of education support they face early on, they are in positions where their social network and their ability to develop strong social networking skills are greatly compromised. Therefore, they also must work hard to build a network and develop strong networking skills to open their paths to professional and educational opportunities.

Although this disparity is seen as a disadvantage, first-generation students’ experiences are meaningful in a separate way. They are experiences that cannot be overlooked because they make each person who they are. As for my experience as a high schooler and college student, while some of my peers may have been shadowing, getting guidance, and exposure to career options, I was cleaning tables at a restaurant trying to make money to support my family’s income. Even though most people would think that cleaning tables at a restaurant is a meaningless menial job, I learned so much from those early experiences working at a young age. It taught me respect for people doing these types of jobs, I developed strong work ethic, and learned to approach any task with dedication on hard work. At the same time, with my parents’ limited English proficiency, I found myself in many odd situations trying to translate for them. I not only learned responsibility and accountability, but I also learned to be an advocate for them. In this manner, I learned to advocate for myself and eventually for others. These experiences are crucial to making the person I am, and I believe the struggles first-generation students face growing up are similar and equip them with a certain set of skills and strengths.


The act of networking needs to be seen as a necessity because networking really is about self-advocacy. One idea I have learned is the importance to have the courage to be heard and be seen. As first-generation students, many times the lack of confidence in ourselves and our hesitation in letting our presence known in spaces that we have not been exposed to, keeps us from successfully building a professional network. Sometimes it is due to the belief that we do not belong in those spaces because we do not come from families with professional backgrounds. However, I have learned that to be invisible, to be silent, is a disservice not only to ourselves, but to those around us. As first-generation students, we have lived unique experiences that have shaped our thoughts and views, therefore the ideas we bring are valuable. By remaining silent in these spaces, we are robbing the world of the unique points of view that would make contributions in those spaces. Moreover, the act of self-advocacy through networking is also an act of advocacy for others. If we cannot learn to have courage to be heard and seen, we cannot learn to advocate for others who are not seen or heard. We owe it to not only ourselves and our families, but also to the underserved communities we represent.