Six years ago, I would have wrinkled my nose at the thought of “networking” for professional purposes.  Networking felt like a contrived, artificial interaction among professionals looking for an advantage or an edge in their field.  It felt like an action one might take to get to score a promotion or make a sale or increase profits.

But six years ago was also when I first attended the Student Organic Seed Symposium (SOSS), the annual, student-organized event presented by the Society of Organic Seed Professionals (SOSP). I was in the first year of my Master’s degree focusing on breeding dry beans for organic systems at the University of Minnesota, and the 2013 symposium in the Pacific Northwest (Mt. Vernon, WA) opened my world to a larger group of individuals with whom I shared common values, research, and purpose.

The SOSS event was structured to encourage one-on-one interactions between graduate students and professionals. The schedule created space for plenty of down-time to continue conversations, and it balanced indoor presentations with field trials and farm visits.  Its design catered to personalized, authentic communication among attendees, and at one point I vividly remember thinking “Have I been thinking about networking all wrong?  Have I been unnecessarily demonizing networking?”

The interactions at SOSS felt so fluid and natural that it was only retrospectively I realized I was actively engaging in “networking.”  Within SOSS, I came to understand networking as a safe space to propose ideas, build community, and collaborate with colleagues.  And the only reason I feel I can call it networking is because it led to sincere interactions and long-term collegial relationships with other members of my professional field.

With the 8th annual SOSS event just under a month away, I excitedly await a reunion with SOSP colleagues and a gentle reminder that our professional spaces should feel natural and welcoming.  The culture of SOSP (and its annual symposium) values genuine camaraderie over forced interactions, and this sense of community distinguishes SOSP from other professional societies.

I am now entering the last year of my PhD and, admittedly, remain uneasy about not knowing where I might land after graduation.  What does bring me peace, however, is knowing I have a “network” of individuals around the globe in public, private, and non-profit sectors upon whom I can call.  These individuals created a welcoming space for me during my graduate degrees and provided a community outside my immediate institutions – I have no doubt they will do the same in my future career.

Post by Hannah Swegarden, SOSP Board Member