During several of the meetings at the Region VII conference in Mobile, Alabama, but particularly at the first-timers meeting (which drew an impressive 110 attendees), regional team leaders, especially Jeff Hutcheson, current chair, Heather Housley, chair-elect, and immediate past chair, Brad Sekulich, stressed the importance to NAFSA's continuing success of an active and vital membership that is willing to take on various leadership roles. In my nearly nine years with the NAFSA staff, I have seen countless examples of this theme play out throughout the NAFSA member leadership structure—individuals, taking their turns to rise through the ranks and lead, while others, having spent significant time and energy as leaders, rotate off teams to allow a new cadre of leaders to have their terms as committee members, chairs, executive committee members, board members, etc.

As I listened to Region VII's leaders, I was struck by the similarity between the way NAFSA operates and the way that cyclists often work cooperatively for the betterment of a group. The weekend before attending NAFSA's Region VII conference, I completed my first 100-mile-long, single-day bicycle event, the Seagull Century, which was sponsored by Salisbury University and took place on Maryland's Eastern Shore. In cycling long distances, riders will organize into groups called “pacelines,” which allow the majority of the riders in the line to save energy by positioning themselves in the slipstream of the rider immediately in front of them. This technique is extremely efficient, giving the drafting riders up to a 40 percent saving on expended energy and allowing the entire group to move much faster.

Region VII Conference Of course, this benefit can only be realized because one rider, positioned at the front of the paceline, is willing to take on the full force of the wind. That rider sacrifices his or her energy for the good of the group. But pacelines would have a very small impact over a long course, if not for the fact that all the riders are expected to take their turn at the front. As the lead rider tires, s/he peels off to take up position at the back of the line and the next rider takes over leadership. By cycling all the participants in the paceline through to the front, the burden is shared and all benefit.

NAFSA, a strongly member-driven association, has an analogous structure. The organization looks to new members to take on their share of riding at the front of the NAFSA paceline as they move through their career paths. New leaders emerge, often initially at the state or regional levels, and move up the paceline to take on their share of the burdens and rewards of leadership. Eventually, like one still active member I met at Region VII who has been with NAFSA since the early 1960s and who has served as regional chair (among other posts), they can relinquish those leadership rigors to others who will take their turns riding into the wind for the benefit of all those coming behind them.

Read more updates from the 2011 regional conferences.

Christopher Murphy is NAFSA's Senior Director for Communications and Engagement Services and Publisher of NAFSA's International Educator magazine.