Navigating ACPA as a graduate student is really intimidating. Thankfully, I had already experienced a large Student Affairs convention last year when I attended NASPA in Indianapolis. However, I wasn’t sure what to expect at ACPA in contrast to NASPA. Additionally, as a second year graduate student amidst in the job search, I felt a lot of pressure to make connections that could lead to a job. However, I went into ACPA excited and optimistic!
Finding My Passion. ACPA isn’t just a great networking opportunity. It is a space where like minded and passionate individuals come together to share knowledge and learn from each other. One advantages of attending ACPA over a functional area specific conference, is that you can attend educational sessions on a large variety of topics you may be interested in not just what you work in. I expanded my knowledge about my functional area (first-year experience), my outside interests (tech), serving underrepresented students (social justice) and theory foundation (student development). After each session I was more and more excited to use what I learned in my day to day work.
ACPA also brought me the gratification of knowing that I am in the right field. For a person who consistently changed what I wanted to do after I “grew up”, this was a new feeling.
It was a foreign feeling but I welcomed it with open arms. I thought to myself “I found my home! I found my people!”. As I am graduating in a month, this is a wonderful realization and has built my confidence in my job search.
Connections: Quality > Quantity. Networking is scary. As someone who is clumsy and awkward, it can be a challenge for me. Thankfully, everyone who I spoke to at ACPA was kind and open to conversation. No one batted an eye when I said I was a graduate student, which helped any imposter syndrome I was feeling. Everyone was encouraging when I mentioned the job search and were genuinely interested in how it was going.
My networking strategies were simple. I would talk to those sitting around me in sessions, introduce myself to presenters, and rely on my established network (former colleagues, faculty, cohort members, etc) to introduce me to members of their networks. Additionally, I volunteered at the social media command center. This was really enriching, as I learned how ACPA ran their social media accounts for such a large conference, and met other student affairs professionals who are nerds about social media as much as I am. Lastly, I attended an open commission meeting for my functional area. I ended up meeting two professionals who work at the schools I have applied to.
Through my networking at ACPA, I learned that it is the quality of connections I build that is more important than the quantity. If I came home with 100 business cards, but didn’t have genuine authentic conversation with those professionals, how does this actually build my network? Or my brand? Instead, I gathered around 10 business cards (this isn’t an adequate representation of the number of people I met) and the majority of them responded to my follow up email and even added me on social media.
I admit, it is discouraging when high level professionals in the field talk about their networks and how they are great friends with the people they’ve met through organizations like ACPA. But to put it into perspective, I am only a graduate student and this is my first year attending ACPA. It is better to start small with genuine connections as a solid foundation of my network.
You do YOU. Your ACPA experience is YOUR experience. Take ownership of it and make it what you want. I contacted those of my network who I knew were attending the conference to set up dinner or lunch. I went to the sessions I wanted to go to. Sometimes, I would be torn between attending a session my cohort members wanted to go to, and a session I wanted to go to. I had to remind myself, “this is MY ACPA, I need to go to the sessions I want and need”. Every person’s passions, interests, and career paths are different, I had to take responsibility of mine. This can be difficult to do in a conference with thousands of people; it is natural for us to stick to those we know. But remember, we grow when we are most challenged, and being surrounded by student affairs professionals at ACPA, we will receive support!
So to my fellow and future graduate students embarking on their first conference, remember, conferences like ACPA are where you can find your passion. When it comes to networking, quality of connections is more important than quantity. Make sure your interactions are genuine and deep. Lastly, only you can make your conference experience what you want!