Browning: Relationship building is key to your college (and future) career

Ryan Browning, Op-Ed Contributor

My name is Ryan Browning and I’m a Weinberg alumnus from the class of 2003. When I arrived on campus 22 years ago, my excitement was palpable. The support from my parents, combined with my hard work, resulted in access to a world-class education. However, I now realize after building a career for 20 years that I missed an equally, if not more so important, aspect of Northwestern: building world-class relationships.  

No matter your ambition or how you choose to apply yourself, your fellow students, the alumni, faculty and administration are all connected to the ecosystems of interpersonal relationships that can facilitate your chosen path. 

Whether you pursue medicine, law, business or social justice, there are relationships you can develop at NU that will orient you to the most efficient pathways to your goals. To be clear, congeniality does not guarantee success, and at the same time neither does being the absolute best at something. 

Hardworking entrepreneurs not only need a killer idea, but also the right relationships to build a team and raise financial capital. The same can be said for researchers, politicians, portfolio managers, movie directors and so on. Beyond financial support for ideas, social capital plays an even more critical role for success in all professions.

During my time at NU, I did not fully understand this. Echoing in my ears was a value held in my family, and arguably common in the African American community, that one must work harder and be smarter than one’s peers in order to be successful. My personal interpretation of that sentiment shaped my behavior at NU in such a way that I over-indexed on knowledge acquisition over relationships.  

Practically speaking, I created separate academic and student life personas. In my academic life, I saw the institution as an authority, hence my relationship with it became transactional: a teacher’s assistant was a means to practice problem sets, a professor was the gatekeeper of pertinent information, a mentor program helped me learn how to get a job after graduation, etc.  Conversely, my student life was much less structured, and I made the most of expanding my horizons by being myself and making friends based on shared interests.  

Because of my reverence (or at times indignation) for the faculty and administration, I excluded them from my personal life. I had no idea there were students who made no distinctions between their academic and student life.  

The way I built relationships with my peers in my work-study job in Norris University Center, or after hours at the Black House, was the same way they interacted with their TAs and professors. As a result, the relationships they made academically and personally were built on authenticity and mutual interests. Relationships characterized by their depth and durability. I made the mistake of being too formal and shortsighted about my academic relationships. My focus was on working hard, gaining knowledge and surviving the minority experience on campus. It wasn’t until years later that I realized some of my peers had ongoing relationships as professionals with professors. 

Unfortunately, this distinction was something that I carried into my early career. I maintained a posture of deference to my company’s executives and my direct manager. After a decade, I caught on and saw that my colleagues with the most desirable projects or fastest successions of promotions had a similar casual approach to leadership/authority. I slowly realized that building personal relationships, however difficult due to cultural differences, would be necessary to be fully known, appreciated and recognized as a professional.  

I can report that my dissolution of the academic life/student life construct a few years after graduating opened me up to more opportunities than would have been possible by just honing my craft further. This is easier said than done, especially if you identify with a marginalized community. This is something that I’m constantly tuning and adjusting given my experience as a Black professional that is on the front lines — even more so with the current racial awakening nationwide.  

I believe it is easiest to gain wisdom from others’ life experiences (i.e. learn from other’s mistakes), and I encourage undergraduate students to seek deep connections beyond the student body. Both structured and unstructured encounters with alumni and faculty will help you gain outside perspective that will help challenge limiting assumptions based on your own cultural background. I am confident that taking that step will enhance your on-campus experience and ultimately help you find more efficient ways to put your world-class education to work. 

Ryan Browning (Weinberg ’03) is currently an executive at WPP, the world’s largest advertising holding company focusing on Innovation and Corporate Strategy. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.