10 Things I Wish I Knew Before My First Conference

by Olivia Barker

With conference season underway, I think it is really important for our new professionals and paraprofessionals to have a little guidance for their first conference. I will be attending my fourth conference this year and here are a few of my tips of the trade!

10. Don't be that (insert gender pronoun here):
I met a person last year who drank so much she actually passed out on a couch in the lobby of the conference hotel. I will never forget her name or where she works because all she did was pass out her business card to everyone around us…yes I’m serious. I always try to stick to a 2-3 drink maximum. My good friend Patty Stranger once said “Nothing good can happen after a third drink!” So, if you aren’t a drinker, this is not your time to try all the fancy martinis on the menu! Always be in control and professional.

9. Dress your best:
You never know who you will meet or see, so always be dressed to impress. The past two years I’ve been to a conference, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with some VIPs and they wear suits…all the time. I am not saying you need to be ready for the prom, but I do encourage you to wear ironed and appropriate business casual clothes. Just say no to wrinkled button downs and bodycon dresses.

8. Don't spend all your time with the people you came with:
My favorite part of conferencing is meeting new people and catching up with old colleagues! Make time to have lunch or dinner with new and old friends. You never know who you will meet…they may work at your dream institution!

7. Do your work ahead of time:
I really can’t stress this enough. If you have a big project due as soon as you get back, take time to get it completed before you leave. Not only will your time be so limited between sessions, socials and dinner with all of your new friends, you will be exhausted by the time you get back to your hotel room. I do make time to check my email, but I only reply if it is time sensitive. You are only away for a few days, be present and focus your energy on having a great conference experience.

6. Be your best you:
Be polite, don't try too hard and remember that you are representing more than just yourself. I met a guy in one of my sessions who literally said to me “I judge people based on their clothes. I mean I wear a suit every day and I am a GA. Why are people not dressed as nice as me?” **blank stare** This is another person whose name and employer I will never forget. I could not believe he said that to me, a total stranger. Think before you speak and represent yourself well.

5. Don't skip sessions:
If you do choose to skip a session, be sure you spend your time wisely. Find other professionals and do some networking, take a quick nap if you need some energy or volunteer…which brings me to my next point!

4. Volunteer:
I am a community servant at heart and I love giving back with my time, especially since we all know we don’t have any money. If you are at your conference alone or you just like meeting new people, this is the way! Volunteering at NASPA last year was one of the best experiences from my conference. I am partial to volunteering at registration, but I’ve worn a blue vest and held a flag for 2 hours directing people to a social and you know what? I had a blast (proof to the left)!

3. Apply to present:
I have presented the last two years at NASPA and I loved every second, but I will be honest, presenting is stressful and it takes up half of my day. I spend the morning preparing and then the afternoon winding down and recuperating from my session, but it is absolutely worth it. It’s amazing to be in a room full of practitioners telling your story! This will be my first year not presenting and I am a little disappointed I wasn’t selected, but it was an experience all on its own applying to present. Even if you aren’t selected, it’s worth trying!

2. Be prepared:
Bring business cards, a padfolio, an iPad, back up pens, mints, tissues, water, snacks, cough drops, a sweater, hand sanitizer (you will be shaking a lot of hands) and a positive attitude! Also, plan sessions in advance. I like to have back up sessions planned in case you don't get into a session or your session isn't what you were expecting.

1. Have fun:
You are not on vacation, but you can enjoy the new city you are in. Don’t eat at your hotel every night, try to make time to take a tour or visit a local attraction and learn about the city, you may want to work there one day!  

I hope everyone has a great time conferencing this season. Don’t forget to take a moment to reflect on how lucky you are to have the opportunity to gather with other professionals and learn about the field we all love!

Student Affairs - the First Years

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  1. Twitter Name: @oliviabark

  2. It's called a Twitter Handle, Olivia. #MuchLove

    1. I am so out of the loop #nothip hahah! Thanks for reading Hunter!


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