How to Navigate NAFSA (And Other Conferences in International Education)

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This year, I'll be attending my 7th NAFSA national conference in St. Louis. That's a lot to some; very few to others. But in six going on seven years I've learned a few things that have helped me as an employee of providers and universities, helped me in my larger international education career, and helped me generally have a good time at a huge, exhausting event. So here are my little bits of advice for NAFSA Newbies.

1. Bring A Sweater & Comfortable Shoes

Okay this one is very utilitarian, but I'm telling you, it's probably the most important piece of advice that will contribute to your comfort during the conference. DO NOT IGNORE. NAFSA is always in late May and most places will be a bit warm/extremely hot at that time of year. So be sure to dress accordingly. However, you'll spend most of your time in frigid conference rooms. Enter sweater/cardigan, stage left!

It may or may not have been "wear your jean jacket to NAFSA" day.

Having another layer on hand will help you warm up and cool off as needed. About the shoes: I believe that all happiness starts in your feet. If you're miserable below the ankles, this conference is going to be miserable for you. The conference center and expo hall are typically huge, receptions are scattered around the local neighborhood and city, hotels can be a hike if you're not staying right next door, and the days are long. Your feet will take a beating. However, I love wearing heels (it might be because I'm so vertically challenged) and my feet can start to kill me by mid-afternoon. I always carry a pair of professional flats/sandals with me that I can wear between events or long walks back to my hotel. Just something small I can tuck in my bag during "business time."   If you're anything like me, even the most comfortable heels feel like walking on needles after a day at the conference. Bring some flats.

For the fellas reading this, I don't know what to say other than I'm sorry you are stuck wearing a full suit most of the conference. Missouri in late May is sticky and humid. I'm sorry. Be sure to wear a nice undershirt  so that when you do ditch the suit jacket, your shirt stays nice (if you know what I mean). And invest in good dress shoes. I've been at many receptions where my guy pals are in just as much feet pain as I am in heels.

2. Sign-up for the Mentor/Mentee Program

The mentoring program is a great opportunity to get at least one hour of attention from a seasoned professional. It's definitely more of a meet-up than a program. The mentoring relationship is really only for the conference, but hopefully you make such a great connection/impression with your mentor that it extends long after the conference is over. I was a mentor at the national in Kansas City and it was great. The sad part is that due to travel schedules, my mentee missed the formally scheduled orientation meeting for introductions…and we struggled to find a mutual time to meet during the conference (though had a serendipitous meet up at the opening reception!). That's why it's important to connect and ask LOTS of questions even before the conference begins. I'm signed up to be a mentor again this year. I think one of the most exciting things about study abroad is meeting all the up-and-comers. They call it a "student mentoring program", however, if you're just starting in the field and not currently enrolled as a student, you should still sign up. You can definitely make a case for it and no one is going to check your student ID. *wink*

3. Take EVERY Opportunity to Network and Meet New People

I understand that not everyone is a raving extrovert, but for one week, pretend to be.

If someone invites you to a reception, work it into you schedule and Go! If someone asks for a meeting - tell them you have 15 minutes - and Go! Someone wants to introduce you to a colleague or friend - shake hands happily. If you don't have anyone to talk to at a reception, make eye contact with someone else standing all alone and BOOM you have a new friend and colleague. I know it can be difficult to have the stamina for the early mornings and late nights (believe me! My friend and former boss, Troy Peden, is amazing at this!). But if you're new and trying to start/grow your career in international education, you have to get out there, meet people, and be memorable (in a good way). Whatever it is, make sure you take advantage of an opportunity to meet new people and hear their stories. You never know when a random handshake at a conference will turn into a job offer later. It's happened to me; it can happen to you.

4. Don't Just Attend Sessions - Participate Too!

I love going to sessions. I guess you could say I like to geek-out at conferences. #studyabroadnerdforlife

You know you're a #studyabroadnerd when your name badge looks like this.

If the presenter is a good communicator, it makes attending that session sooooo much better. But even if the presentation is lacking, make sure you engage! Ask questions during the Q&A, offer up ideas during round table discussions, give examples of work you've seen or done that relates to the topic. Just like in college, you'll get extra career mojo points for participation. It shows that you are engaged, thoughtful, and interested in study abroad and will help others identify another person to connect with about that topic.

5. Talk to People You Don't Know

This relates to #3 and applies to newbies and oldies, alike. Confession: I can be the worst at this. For one, I'm really shy (most don't believe this about me but it's true) and two, I like to catch up with friends I rarely see. But regardless of this, we all need to be open to walking up to a stranger, saying hello, and striking up a conversation. Most (but not all) seasoned professionals in the field will appreciate your fervor and energy, and who knows, you might unknowingly walk up to office director or company executive…and BOOM you have a job offer! Hey it could happen. Don't be shy.

Remember: We're all at NAFSA because study abroad impacted and inspired us in some way. If you don't know what to say, just say this: "So what's your study abroad story." The person will likely talk for hours. :) I'm challenging myself to meet a lot of new people (especially first-timers) at this year's NAFSA. I encourage other established professionals to also try to meet some newbies who might be nervous and shaking in their boots. Remember - We all attended our first NAFSA once…and it wasn't easy.

6. Have Fun, But Not Too Much Fun

I've been accused of loving NAFSA. I think I just love people and conferences generally let me meet and reconnect with a LOT of people all at once. At a certain point, going to the main conferences in education abroad can be like a mini-reunion of former colleagues, classmates, and clients. As a result, you can have a lot of fun just "hanging out" with your friends at receptions!

Always love reconnecting with these ladies!

However, as much fun as the conference can be, be sure to get down to business too. This is also when self-awareness is really important. If you're at a reception and you're starting to say inappropriate things to people you barely know. Ummm, you've probably crossed the line into unprofessional-ville and it's time to switch to water. Don't be hungover in the morning (or at least don't let anyone know/see that you are). Don't be the last one to leave a reception. And most importantly, make sure you have positive conversations with everyone. Everyone slips up - I know I have. And it may take some time to figure out how to have "professional fun," so take queues from others. Always remember that it's a very small field and you don't want to cultivate a reputation that will be tough to shake in the future.

7. Choose Your Swag Carefully

This might seem silly, but I'm not kidding. Everyone will be giving away some cool swag. Be selective. You'll throw most of it away when you get home.

8. Don't Talk to People Only Because You Want Something

This could also be called "Don't Burn Bridges." When I worked for a provider, I was at my first NAFSA conference and introduced myself to a random person at a reception (see #5). I was extremely intimidated; I was surrounded by hundreds of people I didn't know. When I said hello, this person was very smiley and friendly and I learned that he worked for another program provider. As soon as I said where I worked, his demeanor immediately changed and you could tell that I was "no use" to him anymore. He couldn't get away from me fast enough. And it made me feel like crap. Fast forward two years later when I was working for a university. That same rep (who worked in my region) was suddenly super friendly to me and always eager to talk. Sadly, I never forgot how badly that rep had made me feel and it hindered our professional and collegial relationship for some time. It's a trivial way to think about study abroad, but at the end of the day, with so many wonderful programs out there, we can afford to be pickier about what programs we approve and send students on. And sometimes, the relationships we have with people will play a roll in our decision-making. In short: Don't burn a bridge. It's a small field (despite what the photo below may imply). Respect everyone and recognize we all have value.


9. Take Time to Rejuvenate

NAFSA is busy and there's very little allowance for "me time". But try your best to take a little time every day to rejuvenate, focus, rest, workout, meditate, something. Do whatever you need to do to keep yourself motivated, pumped, and ready to tackle that next meeting, session, or reception. It's a high-wire act balancing this with #3, but you'll only make quality connections when you're feeling energized and rested.

10. Explore!

We wouldn't be very good international educators if we didn't try to explore a new city or location when given the opportunity. Take an afternoon or evening to check out a local restaurant, park, museum, or anything uniquely local. You'll appreciate the nuance of the conference host city so much more once you leave the conference "zone."


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