Crafting a New Experience with eConnection: A Q&A with the NAFSA 2020 Annual Conference Committee Chair
Planning for the NAFSA Annual Conference & Expo begins years before the global international education community descends on the event’s host city, and members who serve on the Annual Conference Committee (ACC) work behind the scenes to produce what has become the field’s must-attend event. But what happens when a global pandemic hits, preventing groups from meeting in person?
International Educator spoke with Kathy Hammett, the chair of the 2020 ACC, about the inspired thinking and renewed commitment to community engagement that drove the creation of the 2020 NAFSA eConnection program, which begins Tuesday, May 26. Hammett also talks about highlights of the eConnection program, the importance of members “connecting and reconnecting” during this virtual event, and what she’s most looking forward to next year at the NAFSA 2021 Annual Conference & Expo.
Hammett is the senior director of the Center for Global Engagement at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
Planning for the NAFSA Annual Conference & Expo starts years before a member steps into the host city’s convention center. When did you become ACC chair for the 2020 conference in St. Louis, and when did planning begin in earnest?
[About] two and a half years ago, I was tapped to be the chair of this conference, so as such, I was on the Executive Committee for last year’s conference in Washington, D.C. The 2020 annual conference committee that has been working on pulling this all together started working on this almost a year and a half ago. Our first team call was probably December of 2018 or January of 2019.
How are you translating that vision from St. Louis to the NAFSA eConnection?
Our theme is innovate, influence, and impact. We certainly are having the opportunity to innovate, perhaps more than we anticipated. But the nice thing about that theme is that it can be translated into a different type of experience. Not the experience we had originally envisioned, but in the field of international education, we’re certainly innovating right now. There is still so much opportunity and need for us to continue to work on the impact that we can have both locally and globally. And, of course, to have influence on all aspects of the work, [which] goes beyond advocacy and influencing the decisionmakers.
The good thing about our theme is that it does translate into something we can still do very well virtually. We are not trying to recreate the conference - we know we can’t - but we can take aspects of the conference experience and allow our participants to engage in different ways.
Why do you think it’s important for members of the international education community to come together for the eConnection program in lieu of the conference? What do you think it will mean to them?
The conference is obviously an event that people look forward to, not just for the learning opportunities, but for the networking, the connections, and the reconnections that happen. We’re providing opportunities to have some of those connections and to come together as a community, which I think is so important right now. It’s always important, but it’s [particularly] important right now during these challenging and swiftly changing times.
The need for learning has not gone away, so the fact that we’ve offered opportunities for our participants to do presentations and poster fairs virtually is really important; it’s wonderful for our participants to be able to go online and to have this [type of] learning engagement. I keep using the term “engagement,” because that is a lot of what happens at the conference. So this is just our virtual engagement.
We have some top-notch spotlight speakers who will be able to inspire our participants with their stories and their vision as we look ahead. I think that’s going to be something that people are going to appreciate and learn from. I think it is really important that we’re having this opportunity to still gather, learn, and engage.
What has been your role as ACC chair in planning the NAFSA eConnection?
This pivot has been a collaboration between the conference team at NAFSA and the ACC. Early on, we brainstormed what this could look like and what we wanted to be part of it. There have been a lot of opportunities for us to have conversations and engage and talk about the vision, to talk about the different themed days that we’re offering. [The conference team] has done a very nice job of ensuring that member-leaders have been involved in helping craft this new experience. As such, we were able to preserve aspects of the original conference content—sessions, speakers, poster fairs—to ensure that there are plenty of learning opportunities.
What do you hope participants gain from this virtual program?
I truly hope that people will be able to come together and have that feeling of engagement, but then also leave energized and inspired for the work that continues. I hope that people are going to come in, they’re going to connect with people, and then they’re going to leave with ideas and information and inspiration that then they can take forward.
What parts of the eConnection program lineup are you most excited about?
Honestly, I’m excited about all aspects of it. When we first made this pivot to offering something online, it was hard to truly envision what that can look like and what that should look like. To see it all come together with these different elements and these different voices—it just really excites me. There’s a nice flow with each day’s theme, and each theme moves us to the next day and the next day.
You were personally looking forward to having the NAFSA 2020 Annual Conference & Expo in St. Louis. Can you tell us a little more about how the eConnection program will acknowledge our planned host city?
I’m from the Midwest originally, and I think there’s something that is special about [it]. It was going to be terrific to have the conference in the Midwest, because there aren’t that many cities in the region that can [host a group as large as NAFSA]. There is so much great work happening in the Midwest, and I was looking forward to highlighting that during the conference.
We’re still bringing in some aspects of the St. Louis conference—things to highlight St. Louis and the community there. I’m so pleased that we are still able to have local innovators share with all of us as special eConnection speakers. I really love that we are showcasing aspects of the city in this eConnection, because people who attended the 2013 conference, which was in St. Louis, think they know St. Louis. [But] it’s changed so much, and it’s an exciting, dynamic city with so many passionate people who are making a difference. There’s a great food culture there, a really dynamic international culture, a music culture with the blues—hopefully people will have an opportunity to get a taste of that through the eConnection as well and will plan to pay a visit there in the future.
If all goes according to plan in 2021, what are you most looking forward to when we are able to come together for next year’s conference?
Since 1988, I have [only] missed one NAFSA conference—so that is more than 30 conferences that I’ve attended. For me, it’s coming together with my friends and my colleagues, seeing people, and sharing ideas and exchange experiences. That will be something that will be really special for all of us once we’re able to gather again in person. I do hope that by 2021 we’ll all be together, but in the meantime, I think we’ve got a really great alternative.
I hope that members and others do participate in the eConnection and get involved, because I think people are going to leave this experience energized. I hope that people will engage with us so we can all come together on this virtual platform. •
About International Educator
International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work.
From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.
NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.