First Conference? No Problem!

May 04, 2012

By Janel Lockwood

Attending a conference like the NAFSA annual conference can be quite overwhelming for first-time attendees. With so many sessions, networking events, and learning opportunities, it can be hard to know what to attend! Since my first conference in 2007 in Minneapolis, I have learned a lot about how to make the most out of conference time.

Plan ahead. Familiarize yourself with the conference schedule ahead of time and figure out which learning opportunities you don't want to miss. Remember, some sessions at the conference will be recorded—look for the headphones icon next to the session in Conference Connection—and often session handouts are posted to the site by mid-May.

Remember to network.Networking should be a priority on your schedule, as it happens every minute of the conference. It's likely you will learn as much through your conversations with colleagues as you do in the sessions. The open meetings and member interest groups are a great way to network because they break the conference down into smaller, more manageable groups that are of interest to you. Participate in as many of these as you like.

Make use of available technology, especially Conference Connection. Check out LAT blogger Mark Powell's post about using technology to help you have a successful conference experience.

Set up meetings ahead of time. Other attendees will be as busy as you are, so decide on when and where to meet ahead of time. Conference Connection is a great way to connect with other attendees and set up appointments. You can filter and search the list of attendees by a variety of categories to help you narrow down the attendees that are most relevant to you.

Attend first-timer events. There will be a lot of meet-up events throughout the conference dedicated to first-timers. These offerings are built to help you network and meet others who share something in common with you. Visit the first-timers Web site for a list of all these offerings.

Visit the International Education Expo Hall. There will be more than 400 exhibitors from all over the world ready to meet and build relationships with you and your institution. From 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. on Thursday, there will be dedicated expo time for this, meaning you won't miss any sessions. In my experience, visiting the expo hall takes longer than expected, so setting aside time is extremely important. You never know what relationships might develop there.

*Tip! Look at the interactive Expo Hall Map to get a sense of where your potential partners will be.

Participate in a mentor program. NAFSA is offering three different mentor programs at the conference this year. They're a great way to network and make connections. To participate in one of these programs, you'll need to sign-up in advance:

Have fun! Exhibitors, sponsors, and vendors might invite you to events outside of the conference so you can learn more about their company or product. The conference isn't meant to be solely educational; it's meant to be fun, too. Be sure to save some time for sightseeing activities in Houston.

Learn from others. The session, workshop, and poster presenters are excited about sharing their topics with you. Don't be afraid to ask questions. It's likely that another person in the audience has the same question as you. If you haven't attended a poster fair before, I highly encourage you to do so. This is a great way to talk one-on-one with presenters about topics of interest to you, not to mention an excellent way to build your personal network. Visit the NAFSA Web site for a list of the 16 poster fairs taking place.

Feel free to walk out. You only have a week to obtain as much information as possible. If you are attending a session that you don't think is going to be helpful after hearing the beginning of the presentation, it is OK to leave and find another.

Take lots of business cards. Even when you think that you have enough, take more! Don't forget to request business cards from the people you meet. I always jot down something on the back of the card that will help me remember the conversation I had with that person. Remember also to follow up with these contacts after the conference—this is just as important as meeting them.

*Did you know…each attendee receives an “electronic business card” in his or her registration packet? The barcode on the card carries your contact information, allowing exhibitors to collect this information effortlessly—a real time-saver for exhibitors and attendees. Place this code in the back window of your name badge.

Pack comfortable shoes and bring layers of clothing. Although you will be in Texas during the summer, be prepared for cool conference rooms. Make an effort! Even if you are shy, you should make an effort to meet others. NAFSAns are very friendly and always looking to meet new people. This was something that really stuck out to me during my first conference. Put on that smile and work it! Take your meeting to a restaurant. Some of the best meetings I have attended during the conference haven't been in the convention center. Take advantage of the area and set up your meeting outside of it. If you're looking for some great recommendations, check our blog on our favorite Houston restaurants. Don't forget to attend the First-Timers Chat at 4 p.m. EDT on May 8. For additional tips and more specifics, especially related to career building, be sure to check out the transcript from a previous First-Timers Chat on April 26.

For those who have been to the annual conference before, what other advice might you give? For those of you who haven't been to the annual conference before, what else would you like to know?


Janel Lockwood is the Local Arrangements Committee (LAT) communications chair for NAFSA's 2012 Annual Conference & Expo. Janel began her career in international education at Old Dominion University. There, she completed an internship at the United States-India Educational Foundation in New Delhi, India, and was awarded Outstanding Graduate Student in the Higher Education Administration. She has been working in the field of international education for seven years and is an international student adviser at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Janel is pursuing a doctorate of education at Lamar University. She has been living in Houston for two years, and enjoys the city's diversity.

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