Congrats! You are headed off to your first (or second) professional conference. Whether it is a small state-wide drive-in, a regional symposium, or you are gearing up to attend a national conference with thousands of other professionals, going to a conference is a big step and even bigger opportunity in your professional career. But how do you make the most of your time at these conferences? How can you calm your pre-conference anxiety? Well following these simple steps will get you on the pathway to success because you’ll know how to succeed as a conference attendee without really trying! (okay, you have to try a little).
Step 1: Lean on your Network to Expand your Network
Think about who you know going in. Maybe you are traveling with people from your cohort or office. Maybe you have a mentor from your undergrad in attendance. Maybe you are going alone, but your vice president asks you to say hi to an old friend. These are all potential opportunities for you to increase your comfort at these conferences by increasing your network. Reach out to the people you know that have been to conferences before and ask for recommendations for connections. Attend a session or a social with them. Don’t be afraid to play 7 degrees and make connections with new people. 99% of people are more than enthusiastic to meet you.
Step 2: Embrace your New Attendee Status
Almost every conference has some amazing perks for first time attendees. Whether it is a special orientation to help show you the ropes, a special social for you to network with people in your same position (see step 1 above!), or even priority seating at popular conference events, it is sometimes good to be a newbie! Embrace it! Get the conference sticker, have fun with it!
Step 3: Choose your Sessions Wisely
When you check out the full list of sessions, it can sometimes be extremely overwhelming to decide where you want to spend your time. You don’t want to find yourself spending so much time choosing your sessions you miss your chance to go to them!!! So you have to go in with a plan. You will develop your own strategy over time, but for your first conference, I recommend the following guidelines:
Go to at least one session that advances your understanding of JEDI principles
Go to at least one session that directly relates to your current position
Go to at least one session that directly relates to the position you see yourself holding in five years
Go to at least one session where you know (or know of!) the presenter
Go to at least one session about something you know almost nothing about
LEAVE TIME FOR LUNCH!
Bonus Step: Take a Breath, You Got This!
You made it here! Recognize that you are doing a cool thing just by showing up and registering for a conference. Enjoy the experience, take time for yourself, find things that you want to do. You are obviously at a conference to help you professionally, but that does not mean that your personal life should take a backseat. Be kind to yourself during what can be a stressful experience. Remember to eat, sleep, and rest in whatever way best suits you. You are an amazing addition to any conference you attend. Best of luck, and if you see me during your conference adventures this (or any other!) season, feel free to stop by and say hi!
Author: Kirwin Seger (he/him) is a Residence Director at Hofstra University. He is a NUFP alum and has been involved in NASPA in several different capacities. He has a masters in College Student Personnel from Western Illinois University.