When you find yourself wandering around a massive Expo Hall that highlights everything from Africa to England to travel insurance to service learning, and then find yourself, at 2 a.m., surrounded by dancing Brazilians—only to be in a session five hours later about education abroad and meetings with foreign universities—you must only be in one place: the NAFSA Annual Conference & Expo.

Although my own experience wasn't exactly like the one described above, it was unforgettable, overwhelming, and life-changing. Last May, not even a month after graduating from college, I attended NAFSA's 2011 Annual Conference & Expo in Vancouver, British Columbia. As the recipient of the GlobaLinks Learning Abroad Alumna of the Year Award, I had the privilege of joining nearly 9,000 other international education professionals for what I would later call my “first business trip.”

Navigating the conference as an undergraduate student with no real experience in the field was not an easy task—but I was up for the challenge. I soon found myself making connections, handing out my résumé, discovering new opportunities, and, most importantly, learning about the incredible field of international education.

A Combination of Passions

I studied abroad at Kingston University in London in the spring of 2010. My GlobaLinks adviser, Rachael, and the other GlobaLinks staff played a crucial role in making study abroad a reality for me. During my introspective moments in London, I began to wonder what I would do with a BA in English literature after graduation. I started to realize a job such as Rachael's would be a perfect combination of so many of my passions—travel, education, and helping others. It wasn't until I received the GlobaLinks award and spent nearly five days trying to soak in every aspect of the NAFSA conference, however, that I began to understand what the field of international education is really about.

Joining the Family

During the annual conference's First-Timers Orientation, I learned how NAFSA's membership in the United States is organized into regions. Since I did not work in a particular region, but had recently graduated from a university in North Carolina, I attended the Region VII update meeting. Later, at a meeting of international educators from Region II, I learned about the DREAM Act as well as NAFSA's commitment to students who are affected by immigration regulations.

In a small meeting with one of GlobaLinks' affiliate foreign institutions, I learned about the complexities of arranging agreements across different cultures and communicating those differences to students and faculty. Then, in my time at both the GlobaLinks booth and the Kingston University booth, I learned about the incredible camaraderie that exists among international educators. It was then that I knew I wanted to be a part of this massive and impressive family.

It would be impossible for me to summarize all that I learned at the annual conference, but I could not have asked for a more poignant introduction to the field. I am so thankful to have been so warmly welcomed into the NAFSA family, and for being given the opportunity to be a part of the greatest professional and educational field.

Leslie Pitman attended Queens University of Charlotte and is now pursuing her MEd at the University of South Carolina.