Conquering Your First Professional Conference


Going to professional conferences can be refreshing, a chance to focus on your growth, a needed step away from your day to day, and a reenergizing experience, but they can also be tiring, filled with anxiety, and challenging. As an introvert heading into my first professional conference as the only attendee from my institution, I definitely identified with the latter. I am a first semester graduate student, in a new region of the US, so I got to explore St. Louis for the first time, which was great. I went to a recommended pizza joint, then headed to the conference. The first night there included a big social and I walked into a big room filled with people, and there was not a familiar face in sight. I learned a lot about myself that I was not expecting to learn when heading to a conference to learn more about the profession. Attending this conference alone was not easy, but I would not change a thing and I would do it again tomorrow if I could.

I believe that conferences are one of the best ways that we as student affairs professionals can participate in our own development and growth as we provide for students on a daily basis. Here are some tips on navigating a conference alone. This is not a comprehensive list, but it’s a start.

1.You’re going to be uncomfortable…and that’s okay

If you’re like me and walking up to a group of people that you don’t know and joining in their conversation is on the top of your to-don’t list, know that it is okay to be uncomfortable. When I sat down with five people at the social the first night, I didn’t want to do it, but I knew I had to take that first step. Go in knowing that you may be uncomfortable at some point during the conference. I tried to put myself in the mindset of a freshman on the first day of school. I would tell someone in that position to talk to people, join student organizations and go to events. In this situation, I knew I would have to do the same. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and you will create bonds with others that you never would have had you not taken that first step.

2.Have conversations with professionals!

You are in a place where no one knows you or your institution, you don’t have to talk with or about your students, or about your specific role, and you just get to share you and your journey with others. Conferences not only help build your professional network, but you just get to talk with people that understand your work and what you’re going through. Most people will even be happy to help you problem solve or brainstorm. You can get great ideas to bring back to campus and implement them just by talking to those you find yourself surrounded by. Always have current and up-to-date business cards with you so you can connect later. You’re not going to remember everyone and everything. If you make a good connection, exchange business cards, write something about the connection you made, and always reach out post-conference. Who knows, they could be your future employer!

3.Go to sessions for YOU.

It can be tempting to go to sessions because you think a friend or your department will really benefit from the information, but guess what? It is okay to not go to that session if there is one you’re more interested in. Every day, day in and day out you serve others, putting students and your department’s needs before your own. It is okay to be selfish and go to the sessions you want to go to. Going to sessions you enjoy will benefit your students and department in the long run anyway because you will come back refreshed, with new ideas and ready to work, even if you didn’t go to the session they would’ve chosen for you.

4.Pick sessions that will benefit you now and later.

There are many sessions I attended at the NASPA Region IV- WE conference that made me think and gave me information that I could use now. They challenged my thinking and gave me resources for understanding my students and myself better. As a grad student, I loved learning from people that think differently than I do and challenge me to think about things from a different perspective. One of the most impactful sessions I went to was a session I knew I would need later. It was about searching for jobs outside of your current functional area, and even though I can’t necessarily use the information now, the second year grads can and I can then bring that resource back for them even if that wasn’t my intention. Bonus: If you go to a session you really enjoy, reach out to the presenter(s) after the conference and start a conversation!

5.You CAN sit with us!

If the conference includes meals and/or sessions at banquet style tables sit somewhere new for every session if possible. As a human and creature of habit, you may be tempted to go straight for the same seat. Don’t. It is likely that those around you are doing the same thing. Challenge yourself to sit somewhere new. I find it easier to sit down first and to be the person to say that seats are open then to ask about seats and be rejected, but to each their own. If you sit somewhere new you are more likely to meet new people and you will get a different perspective of the room. Chat with those at your table, just not with a mouthful of food, this is a great time to practice dinner etiquette for interviews and professional functions!

6.Post- conference reality check

After a conference you will likely feel refreshed and drained at the same time. You will go back to your normal day-to-day, but challenge yourself to implement one thing you learned at conference right when you get back. Reach out to all of those great people that you exchanged business cards from or those presenters you really enjoyed, don’t let them be out of sight and out of mind. Some of my closest friends as an undergraduate student are ones that I met at a conference. This same trend is something I hope to stay true to that as a professional.

It is easy to come back and be distracted by your growing inbox and never ending to do list, but continuing your professional development is crucial to effectively support students. Conferences are special times with people from all across the profession. Take advantage of that. While you’re at conferences it is also a great place to learn how you can become more involved in the profession. There is always some project or group that needs a helping hand, if you’re looking for an opportunity seek it out.

My last tip especially for those going it alone at a conference is to attend the social events! They might be scary or intimidating at first, but they are worth it. Make the most of your time while it is 100% completely yours during a conference.

A conference is the perfect place to reflect on and pursue the following question posed by Dr. Bertice Berry: How can we give ourselves, what we give others?

Now go, get your conference on, and give back to yourself.

Katy Reinke is in her first year of the College Student Affairs graduate program at Eastern Illinois University. Katy is currently working in Housing and Dining Services as an Associate Resident Director in the oldest residence hall in the state of Illinois! Katy was born and raised in Florida and is an alumna of Florida Gulf Coast University.