From January to July, higher education is in the grip of conference season. For administrators in student affairs, it is the season of acronyms as we attend the annual meetings of AACRAO, ACPA, AHEAD, ASCA, ACUHO-I, and NASPA, among others.
Attending a conference is, of course, an important part of professional development. But with many institutions still in the grip of budget woes, people in student affairs (and throughout higher education) are lately finding their opportunities for conference-going to be few and far between. So it is more important than ever for those fortunate enough to attend a conference to get the most out of the experience.
Conferences are an important source of new information, varying perspectives, and promising practices in our field. They can be valuable in helping you to build a network of professionals who can be a source of advice, information, and support—and who can alert you to job openings. And time spent away from the office, but with others who share an understanding of our work, can go a long way in helping to renew your commitment to your professional life.
Before you go to a conference, it's helpful to identify some broad goals. Are you hoping to gain greater depth of knowledge in your particular area of practice? Increase your knowledge in new areas? Identify colleagues with whom to network? Identify new professional opportunities and folks who can help you pursue them?
A variety of factors (among them, money, scheduling, and the perspective of your supervisor) may affect your choice of conference. An important question to consider is whether you hope to pursue depth of knowledge and wider networks, or greater breadth.
With regard to depth, many of us have an association that we consider our professional home, and we look forward to attending that group's conference whenever we can. Attending regularly is one way to build relationships and a reputation in the field. Taking part in as many program sessions or events as you can that are related to your particular area of professional responsibility (such as housing, support for minority students, or fund raising and development) can be particularly helpful.
On the other hand, it can also be valuable to vary the conferences and program sessions you attend. Doing so can help you extend your professional network beyond the boundaries of your specialty and introduce you to issues that you might not otherwise encounter.
Entry-level professionals are more likely to have a well-defined specialty area. Hence, seeking greater depth might be a more appealing strategy in the choice of conference. More experienced administrators in student affairs might choose a conference that offers breadth, so they are exposed to a greater variety of people and topics. As the scope of your professional responsibility broadens from a departmental to an institutional role, breadth may also be a more desirable route to pursue.
Taking part in conferences outside of your usual realm of professional responsibility can also be a way to explore your career options in the field or prepare the way for a job change within student affairs.
Professional development at conferences takes place in the formal curriculum of the program sessions and events as well as in the informal "curriculum" conducted in the hallways and hotels. Getting the most out of a conference requires you to pay attention to both.
Taking part in program sessions is the obvious way to make the most of the formal curriculum at a conference. Proposing and presenting at program sessions can also help you develop your expertise on a topic and enhance your name recognition in the field. Volunteering at a conference can offer some of the same benefits for professional development.
Some people seem to overlook the value of the informal elements of a conference experience and spend their time rushing from session to session. My advice: Slow down and look around. Be aware of who is walking in the hallways, hanging out in the lounge areas, or standing in the inevitable and interminable lines at the coffee shop. Make sure your body language and energy indicate you are open to conversation (instead of being too busy, important, or focused to interact).
Talk to people. Find out how their conference experience is going, what sessions or events look promising, or what leads they might have to share about institutions that are hiring. Don't limit yourself to being a consumer of connections; be a creator, too. Introduce colleagues to one another.
New opportunities for professional development also exist in the cyberspaces associated with a conference. Tweets, blogs, and other forms of social media are increasingly part of the formal and informal curriculum of conferences and workshops.
Most colleges and universities recognize that having employees take part in conferences and workshops is an opportunity for them to refresh and rejuvenate. They also know that you're not going to attend every session like a dutiful worker bee. As a matter of both ethics and accountability, if you are fortunate enough to have your institution footing the bill for your conference attendance, you should be mindful of the appropriate balance between the formal curriculum, the informal one, and your down time at the meeting.
Whether in a formal or informal setting, it is important to be prepared. Make sure you are carrying business cards and have access to a current résumé to share. You never know when an interpersonal interaction is going to turn into a lead for an intriguing professional opportunity. Have fun during the social events of the conference—but not too much fun.
One final bit of advice is to make the most of mentoring at conferences. If your mentor is attending the same conference (or has in the past), talk to him or her about your goals for the meeting and get some advice. Once you're at the conference, take advantage of the opportunity to interact with senior members of the profession who are there. Over the years I have found those folks willing and eager to talk with new colleagues and to truly appreciate that such interactions offer both the senior and junior members of the conversation a chance to learn.