Making The Most of a Professional Conference as a New SA Pro

by Susan Mathieson


While spending a week in Nashville, TN for the Association of Fraternity and Sorority Advisors Annual Meeting, I joked around that I feel “old” in the field because I attended my fourth annual conference for the association. I looked around at the first year traveling consultants, and asked myself if I looked like a lost puppy while navigating my first conference – and the truth is, I absolutely did. I was a bright eyed and bushy tailed first year professional with no clue how to get the most of my first professional conference. Here is my tips for making the most of a professional conference, no matter if it your first or fourth!

Become/find a mentor. I found that this year I spent a lot of time with first year professionals that I met while they were undergraduate students. I helped them identify what their focus for the conference was, connected them with other professionals and asked how I could help them achieve some of their goals as a first year professional. I also made sure to take time to meet with my professional and personal mentors. Conferencing can be extremely busy, so ask your mentor to grab a coffee in between sessions! 

Draw a Roadmap. Imagine your conference as a shopping spree where you want to get as much as you possibly can with a limited time to do so. Almost all of the timeslots for sessions will have upwards of 10 sessions for you to choose from attending and you will have to identify which session will be most beneficial. Take time to prepare prior to the conference and download the schedule and think about what sessions interest you. If you selected three sessions on how to develop online education, you should reevaluate so that you aren’t repeating information in the sessions. Plus, many presentations can be found online or if you reach out to the presenter, who could send a copy your way.

Volunteer in whatever capacity you feel comfortable.Graduate Staff, AM Ambassador, Association Volunteer etc.Volunteering is what helped me begin to connect to the association. I spent two years volunteering at the conference as an educational programs ambassador and was able to see howmuch work it takes to make a conference run smoothly. Because of this role, I learned the ways in which the association can benefit its members and began to get involved in a more permanent capacity. I now serve as part of the Region II (Southeast) team and can help ensure members are getting the resources and development that they need throughout the entire year. 

Network. I am a believer that who you know is a top contender against what you know in the field of student affairs. Three out of the four roles I have held since I started in student affairs were only opportunities because of someone that I had built a relationship with. Of course, I was able to seal the deal because of the skills I brought to the table – but the opportunity only presented itself through the network I built. And don’t forget to bring those business cards!

Take time tstay up on your work. While an out of the office auto response is great to let people know that you won’t immediately reply, it’s important to take an hour a day to hit the top priority emails/work you have. Conferencing can feel like a mini-vacation, but you will be stressed when you return and have 300 unread emails and frustrated students/coworkers because you took a week to respond. 

Decompress and reflect. Any professional conference is going to be exhausting, so after it ends take some time for yourself to decompress. After you fill your gas tank back to full, it’s time to read through all of your notes and determine how you are going to utilize the information you gained. And lastly, follow up with those people you connected with! Say thank you to a presenter and ask for more information or let someone know you truly enjoyed the conversation you had with them throughout the week.

Student Affairs - the First Years

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