How to Get the Most Out of Attending a National Convention

Republished from an 8th Vector past edition (February 2015)

Dr. Dan Calhoun SCGSNP Faculty in Residence

For many graduate students and new professionals, attending a national convention can be a challenge both financially and professionally.  Many grads and entry-level staff may shy away from going to such a large event, since the combination of high costs and presence of major Student Development theorists and researchers can be intimidating.  However, if you are fortunate enough to have a supportive environment that allows for convention attendance, do not let these things turn you away from missing a wonderful professional development opportunity. There are ways to work around some of the travel and lodging expenses (sharing a room, travel grants and/or payment plans (like this one for grad students), driving instead of flying, etc.) and the well known folks who you might encounter are almost always approachable.

In short, if you have the chance to attend one of these larger level professional gatherings, I strongly encourage you to do so.  Below are some tips I have compiled from 15+ years of attending national conventions.  If you want to make the most out of your time, here are some things that I suggest you do:

1.)   Volunteer
One of the best ways to meet people and get the lay of the land while at a convention is to volunteer.  It takes many people to successfully plan and implement an event of this magnitude, and organizers are ALWAYS looking for new people to help. There are two main ways in which you should can volunteer your time as a grad student/new professional at a national convention:

a.     As a General Convention Volunteer – being a general volunteer means that you could help out almost anywhere – you might assist with check-in, sit at an informational table, help presenters get organized, etc.  The best part of this type of volunteer work is that you get to meet a lot of both new and seasoned professionals in a low risk environment – plus, you usually get some extra swag for your nametag!.

b.     At Career Central/Placement Center – what better way to learn the interview process than by helping out there BEFORE you actually interview?  Career Central can be an intimidating place if you do not understand how it works.  As a volunteer, you can help better understand the layout, communication system between candidate and employer, and other nuances of this process without any of the stresses associated with actually interviewing.  Trust me, when it is your turn to interview, you will be glad you volunteered in Career Central first! If you will be a candidate this year or are planning to search next year, this is a great way to network with colleagues across the country who may even be able to help you find your next position!

2.)   Attend the Opening Session and Featured Speakers
Often times national conventions bring in several featured speakers that have made a significant contribution to the field of higher education and student affairs.  Typically, there is an opening speaker, a closing speaker, and a few other speakers sprinkled in throughout the convention.  Due to travel schedules it can sometimes be difficult to get to see the speakers at the beginning and/or end of the convention, however, if it is at all possible you should really try to be there for these events.  The speakers are almost always recognized individuals who have some unique perspectives that both motivate you and challenge your thinking.  Past speakers include (but are not limited to) Mitch Albom, Al Gore,  Brené Brown, and George Stephanopoulos.  When would you ever get the chance to see individuals like these speaking directly on topics that are relevant to what you do?

In addition, the opening speaker is often part of a larger kick-off for the convention.  Think of it as kind of like a pep rally to get everyone excited about what will be happening over the coming days.  Side note – following the opening speaker, be on the lookout for hors d’oeuvres and other snacks for those of you on a tight budget!

3.)   Diversify your sessions
Take the time to thoroughly review the convention schedule and diversify which sessions you choose to attend.  Some sessions allow you to explore topics that may be helpful to your institution or are related to your passion areas in the field, while others may be more geared to individual professional development and self-reflection. Also, do not be afraid to stretch yourself a little bit and attend a session that might be out of your comfort zone.

If there are two sessions that you’d really like to attend that are being offered at the same time, chose the one that best fits your needs and follow up on the other later.  It is acceptable to contact the presenter(s) and see if they had any handouts or any takeaways from the presentation.

When attending a convention of this size, you may have a tendency to stay with your friends or colleagues and go to program sessions a group.  Try to avoid this practice – instead, spread yourselves out so you can attend several different sessions at once as a collective group.  Then, when you reconnect with your colleagues later at the convention or back on campus, you can share the knowledge learned and pool your respective resources. Programs are excellent opportunities for you to learn – take advantage of them in as many ways you can!

4.)   Attend a Standing Committee or Commission open meeting
Almost every professional organization has sub-committees and commissions that work to meet the needs of the various stakeholders within and outside of the field.  Some center their work around the various identities/populations within the profession (such as LGTBQ, students with disabilities, men/males, women/females, graduate students and new professionals, etc.) while others are focused on processes, policies, or functional areas within student affairs (for example Residential Life and Housing, Career Services, and Student Involvement).   All of the standing committees and commissions hold open meetings that anyone can attend.  These meetings are a great way for you to learn more about the goals and mission of the group, what priorities they are working toward, and how you can get involved.  Many times, it is the newest members that help drive the direction of these groups – so go and let your voice be heard!

5.)   Go to some evening activities
The convention can be a whirlwind during the day, so it is tempting for you to go to bed early.  While rest is important, take note of the events that are going on each night after the presentations and interviews have ended.  Most activities will be listed in the convention program, but other events might be announced over social media, at program sessions, or at standing committee/commission meetings.  These events can range from university socials for alumni and friends to comedy shows, dance parties, and other forms of entertainment.  These activities are both informative and fun, so try not to miss what happens when the sun goes down!

6.)   Find the appropriate balance between professional and fun
For many young professionals (and a few seasoned ones) finding the balance between being professional and having a good time can be a difficult task.  Understand that the convention is a time to learn and also a chance to network and catch up with friends and colleagues.  There will be many opportunities for you to socialize on a number of levels.  Make sure you are ready for these so that you can make good choices about your level of social interaction.  Student affairs is a small field and you never know who knows whom.  This can be both good and bad, so be sure you find the appropriate balance to show others that you are fun and have a personality, but that you know how to keep things professional.

7.)   Plan your days and scope out the locations of your sessions ahead of time.
In order for you to maximize your experience, make sure you look over the convention schedule ahead of time so you know what is going on and when.  Often the program guide will be available online before the convention, and if you wish to have a printed copy, they are usually available at check-in.  Please note that the printed version is often not as up-to-date as the electronic one, so keep that in mind when planning out your schedule.  Also, in an effort to encourage sustainability, there typically are not enough printed copies of the program guide for every attendee, so be green if you can!

If you have time, familiarize yourself with the convention layout before you have to attend a session.  Some convention centers and hotels can be hard to navigate, and it would be a shame if you were late to or missed a session you really wanted to attend because you could not find the room!  Use the maps in the program handbook, online, and if you can, download the convention app (such as Guidebook) for your smart phone. Most conventions utilize this technology, and apps such as these have all of the information you will need and allow you to build your schedule so you can have it with you at all times.

8.)   Go to the Exhibitor Area and get some swag
Nearly every convention has a large area dedicated to sponsors and vendors (often referred to as Exhibitors) who are just waiting to meet you and give your free stuff.  Bring your business cards (conventions are one of the few places you actually will get to use them!) for drawings and to pass out to colleagues you may meet.  The exhibitor area also has several book displays where you can get free and/or reduced rates on current and seminal books in the field.  You may want to bring a bag with you, as it is likely you’ll walk away with some new pens, stress balls, t-shirts, and other free knick-knacks and swag.

9.)   Experience the Convention Location!
While it is important to attend sessions, network, and develop professionally, it is equally valuable that you also take advantage of the location of the convention.  Often, national conventions are in places that you may never been, so why not explore what the area has to offer both culturally and entertainment-wise?  If you are in New Orleans, check out Bourbon Street. While you are in San Francisco, take time to visit Alcatraz.  If the convention is in Atlanta, why not visit the home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or the Coca-Cola Museum?  Sometimes the convention will provide a list of some opportunities to visit local landmarks, but even if they do not, make sure you get out and see what the convention host city has to offer.

10.)  Embrace and Utilize Technology
Get on the technology train!  Learning new ways to engage with technology can help you become a better professional.  Whether it is by following the Convention Blog, connecting via social media such as Twitter and Facebook, or attending Pecha Kucha sessions, conventions offer an opportunity to explore our profession in new and innovative ways. Taking part in live tweets and back channel discussions during the opening and closing sessions or while attending individual programs can be an incredible opportunity to enhance your convention experience, as it provides a more reflective and participative way for everyone to connect and learn.  Similarly, the Pecha Kucha presentations offer a new element to the traditional convention program format, as they allow participants to see a number of speakers and topics in short (6 minutes, 40 seconds) sessions.  Be sure to check them out if you have not yet done so – I am sure you will have the time!

Finally, connecting to the convention via social media not only expands your network, it can give you the inside scoop on upcoming special events, awesome promotions, and convention give-aways. Be forward-thinking and have some fun at the same time.

These are just a few of the tips and recommendations I have for you to maximize your experience at a national convention.  As with anything, your experience will be what you make it – just be sure you do not forget all you learn at convention when you return back to campus!

Dr. Jason Laker SCGSNP Faculty in Residence
My colleague, Dr. Dan Calhoun and I are serving as the 2014-15 SCGNP Faculty-in-Residence.  We are looking forward to seeing our early career colleagues in Tampa.  Dr. Calhoun shared his thoughts and advice about the value of attending and actively participating in the national conference (of course, his good advice is equally applicable to regional and state conferences too).  As I prepare to attend my 22nd annual ACPA conference (That seems bizarre to me…just yesterday I was a Hall Director attending my first one, but I digress), I fully concur with what he shared and my experience over the past two decades resonates.  I remember my first ACPA (1993) and rooming with a friend at a rather ratty motel far off sight and renting a tiny clown car to get to the convention center.  I recall being intimidated by the sea of people who seemed to know their way around the conference and association.  However, attending sessions, volunteering, showing up to Standing Committee and Commission meetings, and the various things Dr. Calhoun recommends did indeed help me ground myself into the situation effectively.  In short, he’s right, and you should listen to him!

I’d like to add to Dr. Calhoun’s advice by suggesting ways to get and give the most to your ACPA membership and a conference experience from a long-term perspective.  In one sense, I’m talking about networking and career planning, but I want to approach this topic in a way that specifically avoids the frenzied connotations associated with these words.  Very often, especially at the beginning of our careers, we get into a habit of trying to meet people who hold advanced positions in the field, in the hope that they can help with our own advancement aspirations.  Similarly, we often join committees and other activities motivated by how it may look on our résumés.  These habits are understandable, but short sighted.  This approach is superficial and uninspiring, fostering primarily instrumental relationships between colleagues and with our work.  I am advocating for a more ambitious and inspiring approach to our career and professional relationships.  Put simply, we should take the time and care to meet as many people as possible because it’s fun to make friends, and we should join or participate in activities because they are interesting and meaningful.  This may seem obvious, but I confess to pursuing the former approach for several years before finally realizing that it was a grind I no longer cared to continue.

Those who know me are aware of my fondness for the book, “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo.  Before you get worried, let me say that the thing I most appreciate about the protagonist, Don Vito Corleone, is that even as a young person, when he was a new immigrant to the U.S., he always believed in friendship.  He made friends with many people regardless of their eminence or financial status.  His long-sighted vision convinced him that if one concentrates on helping others and building relationships, that there will always be opportunities or people to help you out of a pickle in the future.  Obviously that book includes more, shall we say “heavy-handed” elements too, but the wisdom associated with being reasonable and relational offers countless dividends.  I have needed partners for collaborative projects, advice on solving conflicts, help with job searches, and referrals for activities such as consulting and writing over the years, and I have been very fortunate to have so many good people—friends and colleagues—available to help when needed.  Similarly, I have found a lot of joy and satisfaction in offering mentoring and political analysis to others, and working with an enormous diversity of people on various professional activities.

So, making an intentional choice to participate in activities simply because we find them engaging, something significant happens.  I was on that treadmill of trying to make sure certain boxes were checked in my experiences, based on my perception of what would look good on résumés or in job interviews.  Once I deliberately focused on activities just because they were fun and interesting, it turned out that my résumé grew faster.  The reason is very simple.  When we approach projects, committees, etc. this way, we tend to exude genuine enthusiasm, show up on time and prepared, and in general give our collaborators a great experience of us.  Then, when they all go off onto other projects and need to recruit help, they tend to think of us as great prospects.  Our reputation as solid and positive colleagues gets around, and I found that I had many more opportunities than I could possibly pursue.  And, with this came the calm confidence to say no to things, which produced better balance and support for

Despite the common experience of feeling lost in the sea of conference attendees, the fact is that our field is actually quite small.  The longer we work in Student Affairs, the more connected we are with others.  For example, immediate past president of ACPA, Dr. Kathleen Kerr and I worked together at the University of Delaware in the mid-90s.  Dr. Keith Humphrey, ACPA President in 2012-13 was a Hall Director when he and I worked together at the University of Arizona in the late 90s.  At that time, Greg Roberts, former ACPA Executive Director, was the VPSA at the University of Saint Thomas and President of ACPA.  I had the pleasure of serving on his Executive Committee from 1999-2000.  As you prepare to go to the conference in Tampa, I urge you to give yourself permission to be social without agenda.  Attend open business meetings of Commissions and Standing Committees, go to sessions on topics that you don’t have much experience in, and approach fellow attendees to ask if you can join them for coffee, lunch, a chat, or whatever.  I adopted many mentors this way, and learned a lot of things that would have been hidden from me if I just focused on my résumé.  Now, more than 20 years into my career, I feel very comfortable in, and familiar with our field, and definitely very connected and surrounded by friends.  I invite you to get off the résumé treadmill and enjoy fellow conference attendees regardless of what title or school is listed on their name badges, and get serious about having fun in the field.


If you have any other questions or want additional advice, please be sure to contact either of the CGSNP Faculty in Residence at the addresses below:

Dr. Dan Calhoun: @calhoundan OR
Dr. Jason Laker: @jasonlakertweet OR


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