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In Manhattan conference room, students get networking workout

College and career readiness isn’t just about what students know — it’s about whom they know, too.

That’s the philosophy behind the Opportunity Network, a 10-year-old nonprofit organization that aims to develop professional skills in students who might be the first in their family to attend college. Last Wednesday, that development came in the form of two-minute conversations with an array of young professionals during an event that the organization bills as “speed networking.” (Watch part of the event in the video above.)

The event was for the group’s 60 OppNet Fellows, high school students selected after a lengthy application process to get two years of weekly workshops and college guidance.

“All the things that I may have taken for granted in terms of what I was exposed to in terms of career content, professional etiquette, and networks — they need to learn to maximize their career search,” said Jessica Pliska, the organization’s founding director.

For the most part, the Opportunity Network has focused its efforts on high-performing students whose strong academic skills meant that a lack of relationships might be all that would stand between them and success after college.

“Even the highest-performing kids in high school in New York City are not getting the preparation they need,” Pliska told GothamSchools earlier this year. “The experience and the knowledge and skills are not sufficient — the networks piece is the secret sauce.”

But the group also offers eight-week workshops and a “Career Fluency” curriculum that schools can incorporate into their existing programs. And Pliska said work has been underway since last year to lay groundwork for expanding the programming to a broader array of students and different points during high school.

The Opportunity Network worked with the I Have A Dream Foundation, which sponsors groups of low-income students on their path toward college, to develop programs in three schools: the high schools operated by the Achievement First and Democracy Prep charter networks, and Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, whose focus on college has won accolades from top Department of Education officials.

At those schools, Opportunity Network worked with students who Pliska said were “not necessarily at the top of their class” to give them the study habits and professional behaviors that they will need in college and in the workplace. For Democracy Prep, the group developed online “webinars” about interviewing, goal-setting, and professional etiquette that could be used in other schools in the future, Pliska said.

Students who participate in the organization’s flagship program say they can already imagine how last week’s networking — which drew volunteers a wide array of professions, including medicine, finance, and fashion — could be helpful to them in the future.

“I kind of think of it as a tease,” said Mariely Garcia, who attends the Richard R. Green High School of Teaching in Manhattan and who learned last week that she had been awarded a full scholarship to Bowdoin College in Maine.

“You meet these professionals, and they tell you about themselves and you tell them about yourself, and if you really build a connection within those two minutes, the idea [is] that you go out and reach out to them and then have an even stronger connection.”