This past week I travelled to the annual National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) conference in Orlando, Florida. Seven years ago I attended my first national conference also in Florida. At that conference I was a first year graduate student in a sea of over ten thousand attendees. That experience was incredibly overwhelming, I knew no one, was involved in nothing, and had no idea what sessions to attend. I spent most of that conference in my room, and only came out to get food and attend a session that I found particularly interesting. It was definitely not a good conference experience and made me question if involvement was right for me.
Six conferences have past since that day and I have not missed one. My second conference experience was much better because I took a volunteer position on a committee and presented. I was also actively job searching so I started to get to know other participants in the conference. Additionally, it helped that the conference was in Boston, a city I could walk around. Unlike Orlando I felt much less trapped and able to explore on my own. Since that time I have been to Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Arizona, each conference better than the last. In Arizona I was an award winner and that was an experience all to itself. You can see that post here.
Though last year was a great experience, this year was one where I really felt like a full fledged part of the organization. The reason behind this feeling is active involvement. There is a big difference to me between going to a conference and participating in one. I am a networker through doing, not one through meeting. This means that I will get to know people and develop relationships through the work that I accomplish. At this conference I had all sorts of things to do. I was a member of the regional advisory board, a leader in the knowledge communities, and a member of the 2014 regional conference committee.
All of these activities shifted my experience and brought me to meetings, gatherings, and fun receptions. The difference between this year and last was that I have now served on the board for a full year. I am no longer building new relationships, rather growing ones that already exist. Walking through the conference I was never too far away from someone I knew which makes you feel much more engaged in the conference activities. I also was able to attend over a half dozen receptions, some that had full meals and great conversation. I have never been so busy at a conference and yet so content and energized. As my friend Renee said on Monday night, “If you’re whole body hurts, you know you did NASPA right”.
There is also something to be said about being at my second campus and my second job. With a significant portion of new professionals leaving the field after 3-5 years it feels good to be at the entry point to mid-level, people definitely treat you differently. It seems like an unspoken statement of “Ok, you’re here to stay so lets chat”. This may be something to think about moving forward because a lack of acknowledgment and connections could be one reason why people leave. From now on I will make it my business to help new professionals and first time attendees feel connected to the association. I think I also felt much more confident sitting on boards with people at much higher positions now that I am at my second step. Lastly, being at a new campus means that reconnecting with past colleagues is a new adventure. Spending Tuesday night with friends from UCR was great fun, just like spending other meals with friends from graduate school. It is amazing to see where we are all going and what is in store for us in the future.
The last fun thing at the Orlando conference was running into and reconnecting with past employees and others you have helped over the years. I was able to sit down with an old Resident Advisor who worked for me for two years, went to graduate school, and was job searching. It was amazing to see her growth over the past few years and it truly demonstrates the value of the work we do. It was my first “Full circle” experience, and definitely not the last. Additionally, I ran into someone who sat in one of my presentations at a difference conference in my second professional year. He told me that my work with student training molded the programs they did at his campus over the next few years. He said that they pulled out my documents each year to make sure they followed the guidelines to success. It is amazing to see your creations impact campuses in other states in such dramatic ways. Another reason why I know this work is for me.
At the end of the day, the conference is just the pinnacle of each year’s work in NASPA. The more you volunteer and the more good work you do, the better your annual conference experience will be. Over the next year I will continue to serve on the board and see where that involvement takes me. If anything it will help me meet even more people and develop more relationships so that the Baltimore conference will surpass Orlando. Eventually babies may join the party but I’m ready for that change to come and add a new nuance to the conference adventure. Until next year!