My First NAFSA Was Terrible (and how it transformed my career)

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First NAFSA Conference - Inside Study Abroad

This weekend I was talking with a woman about the Global Pro Institute and started to tell her one of the primary reasons I decided to create a program like this. 

For those of you who don't know, the Global Pro Institute is my flagship career development program for aspiring study abroad and international education professionals. Through a six week, only program, I help my students create a strategic plan of action to launch a career in the very competitive world of IE. 

This program has a lot to it and I won't get into all the details here. You can read ALL about it here

But one of the most important elements of the GPI experience is the community and professional network that participants build as a result of the program.


 So let's rewind and go back to the beginning...

In the fall of 2005 I was in the last year of my graduate program studying higher education and student affairs at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. 

I was past halfway point in my program and heading into the final semester of my Graduate Assistantship working in the study abroad office at Baldwin Wallace College (now University). 

As someone hell-bent on working in study abroad, I'd always wanted to attend a NAFSA conference, but the registration fees were just too much for my tiny grad student budget. Compared to the student affairs world where most grad students barely paid a thing for conferences, the IE world didn't have much support (at least not back that makes me sound old.)  

And so I was gearing up to attend my first NAFSA (a regional in Detroit) in the fall of 2005. I convinced a grad school friend to go with me since I didn't know a single person in the field (besides my GA supervisor). 

At that time, I was an outlier in my grad program. While most of my friends were searching for jobs in student activities, housing, leadership programs, Greek life, career services, etc - I was the only person in my program focused on international education. I'd spent my entire grad program writing papers on, doing research about, tailoring presentations to the student experience in international education. 

I was the study abroad girl in my program. I'd developed a brand for it. 

But outside of that tiny little world, I hadn't done much work to get to know the players and people in the international education space.

So when I arrived at my first opening reception, at my first IE conference, at my first NAFSA...ever...I was going in completely COLD.

And absolutely scared to death.

As a natural introvert, going up to random strangers and striking up a non-awkward, completely natural, memorable conversation about something besides the weather is not my forte. 

It's something I still struggle with today (though I'm exceptionally better at it now). 

But I knew that I had to start meeting people if I was going to build my network and grow my career. That's what everyone always tells us, right? Network! 

My response is: How?! (Which is why in GPI I have an entire Module with six specific lessons all about building your network in IE.) 


So I'm there at my first reception. Of course, as anyone who is crazy nervous and doesn't know anyone does - I head to the bar for my over-priced glass of chardonnay (so people know I'm classy.)

And then I stand there with my friend, looking around, trying to make eye contact with someone, hoping that someone would take pity on these two "newcomers" and start up a conversation. 

I wish I could say that I walked up to or was approached by a handful of people, had riveting conversations, exchanged details, and that it all resulted in lifelong relationships and eventual job offers. 

But that's not what happened. 

In one instance, my friend and I approached a clump of people (maybe 3-4) and attempted to gracefully join the conversation. This particular group literally moved and shifted their bodies to further cut us out of their circle. 

We moved on. 

We split up thinking maybe we were just too darn pretty and intimidating to approach people together! That was it! 

I approached a man standing alone and attempted to strike up a conversation. He told me he worked as a university relations rep for a program provider. I asked him questions about how he liked the work, what kind of role he ultimately wanted, etc.

He was really nice at first when he saw I worked at a university (I had listed my GA assistantship position). But then when I said, "I love my assistantship. That's why I'm here actually. Trying to put out feelers for any jobs that are opening in study abroad." 

The moment I said I was job searching, his face changed and he immediately excused himself from the conversation and walked away. 

I just stood there with my half-empty class of bad chardonnay, jaw dropped, totally shocked by what had just happened. 

And the thought that immediately popped in my head was: "Is everyone who works in IE a complete snob?"

I wish I could say that the rest of my first NAFSA experience improved from there. But just like my friend, during each session, at each coffee break, we were continually rebuffed by what seemed to be this impenetrable in-crowd of IE professionals. 

Did the first-timer workshops not exist yet or had I just not done my research to take advantage of those opportunities? 

Did I just get really unlucky and only try to chat with the 12 snobbiest people in IE? 

That's totally possible.

I know that now more than ever our field has created numerous opportunities for newcomers to meet their peers, engage with seasoned professionals, and connect in a real way to our professional world. 

So that's a huge relief. 

But I also know how horrible I felt after that first NAFSA experience. I honestly felt like that nerdy music geek in high school all over again - and the cool kids just weren't going to give me a chance. 

The big kicker here is this: We're ADULTS - no hormonal teenagers - in a professional world that teaches, mentors, and coaches young adults.

We should be better than this (and I think we are getting better). 


Since that first NAFSA experience, my career has completely changed. I never walk into an event where I don't know someone, or that I don't chat with some aspiring young people, or that I don't walk away with some great new connections.

I'm not magic. I've just figured it out. 

But it took some time to melt the ice of the international education field. 

And when I started dreaming up the idea for the Global Pro Institute I knew a few things: 

  • I knew that we needed a professional space in our field where complete newbies and emerging professionals could come together and build an international network of peers and future colleagues - that could grow exponentially beyond geographic barriers or interest areas in the field.
  • I knew I wanted to create a forum where these young, new international educators could share their wisdom, insights, ideas, feedback with like-minded people at their level. 
  • I knew I wanted each and every member of GPI to able to walk into any conference reception and immediately see a few friendly faces, share some hugs and laughs, and BE THOSE PEOPLE who welcome in other newbies just like them. 

If GPI does nothing else for our participants, it creates an INSTANT global network of international education professionals.

And I also teach you how to turn around and lend a helping hand to those who come after you (because you won't be the newbies forever). 

If you ask anyone in our field, they will tell you that your network will play one of the biggest roles in the advancement of your career in #intled. Period. 

You have to start building it now AND implement a system around sincere relationship building strategies that work. And that I've used in my own career for over a decade. 


And here's the last thought I'll leave you with: In 25 years, the people entering the field today will be the Directors, Senior VPs, Vice Provosts, Founders, Executive Directors, and SIOs of the international education field. 

Focus on building your network OUT - to the people at or near your level - instead of just UP to just the leaders in the field today. 

The people around you will be your future colleagues, session presenters, managers/employees, co-founders, and thought-leaders in the field. 

People like me? We'll be long gone.

Retired somewhere talking about the "good ole days" of international education when you had to get on a plane to study abroad. None of this instant "beam me up scotty" technology. ;) 

If you want to launch and grow your career - and your network - in international education in real meaningful ways...

If you want to move the needle in your professional pursuits...


See you on the inside, 


3 Secrets To Build Your Study Abroad & Global Education Career...

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