It’s that time of year where I’ve got my head down and focused on the massive amounts of projects, presentations, and meeting prep that is integral to the Annual NAFSA Conference & Expo. As it tiptoes steadily forward (stomps is more like it), it got me thinking about all the memories, lessons learned, and enriching experiences to be found at the Annual NAFSA Conference. And in addition to those, how to make sure you make the most of them!
I’ve said before that this conference reminds me a bit of an international educators idea of “prom”, except we’ve traded in prom dresses for fitted blazers and footwear that won’t have us waving a white flag at the end of the night (at least hopefully). More than that, though, this conference represents an opportunity to connect with others in the field of international education, have productive in person meetings, learn more about what’s happening in different regions around the world, and let’s just say it: be awed by the sheer size and scale that is the Expo Hall. Seriously, there’s nothing like seeing that space for the first time every year.
From my in person interview with GoAbroad at the 2011 NAFSA Conference in Vancouver to the weeks I’ve spent in Houston and St. Louis for the last two NAFSA Conferences, I’ve learned a bit about the craziness and exhilaration that encompasses this week-long event.
Before you head off to San Diego, here are five tips I’ve found to be foolproof in rocking it like the best of them at NAFSA!
1. Step Outside Your Comfort Zone & Meet New People
When one attends a conference of this scale (we’re talking 9,000 of your closest friends from around the world) it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and only want to seek out those who you already know. Stop that right now. You’re going to miss out on some amazing connections if you don’t step outside your comfort zone, walk up to someone unfamiliar during a reception, and smile and introduce yourself. At the very least, this may become a new friend, or perhaps a valuable career connection. You never know, so put your best foot forward.
I’ve found the trick is to ‘fake it until you make it.’ This is especially helpful if you’re attending the conference on your own, with a small number of colleagues, or if you’re new to the field (or trying to break into it) and don’t know many people. Walk into a room with your eyes forward, shoulders back, and introduce yourself with confidence in your voice. People will take notice of this, and you’ll be memorable if only for the fact your interactions are direct and and approachable.
SIDENOTE: Don’t forget to pack throat lozenges and shoe inserts! With all the talking and walking you’ll be doing, these can save your voice from turning hoarse and your feet from swelling up by the end of the week.
2. Give Yourself Time to Breathe
As important as it is to interact and meet new people, you also have to give yourself time to breathe or you’re going to burn out before the week is even over. Every day of this conference is packed full of meetings, interesting sessions, and themed receptions, and it can take some practice to manage it. Rather than trying to stuff your face, take smaller bites and let yourself digest them before rushing on to the next course (Okay, that was a bit heavy with the puns, but I think you get my point). At the end of the day, it’s the quality not the quantity of your interactions and experiences that will matter, and help you to get more out of this event.
Even if you only have 15 or 30 minute breaks, take that time to step outside (seriously, you’ll be in San Diego by the water and it’s gorgeous) and get some sun on your face, or sip some coffee/tea/water, and let your brain take a short break. It sounds simple, but it’ll make a world of difference. There’s also a Charity Fun Walk/Run put on by The Education Abroad Abroad Network (TEAN) that makes for a great way to get some physical exercise while supporting a meaningful cause!
3. Attend Sessions & Ask Questions
Instead of simply just sitting in a session and leaving right as it ends, try to be more actively engaged. I understand many of you will be super busy and running from a session to a meeting, but if you can stay to ask questions or chat with the presenters, do so! Many presenters will leave time for Q&A at the end of their presentation, so take advantage of it. These are people who want to share their knowledge with you, as well as hear your thoughts, so why not let them? I can’t recommend this enough for anyone new to the field or who will be job-hunting at NAFSA. By showing that you’re engaged with the conversation or at least interested in the content, people will take notice of you and remember your name. It will also help you to meet new people, and these kinds of connections can be essential with your job-hunting endeavors.
As well as all the sessions and poster fairs, be sure to check out the SIG/MIG Meetings and the Knowledge Community (KC) Meetings. These are some of my favorite ways to branch out in the field, get to know others in your specific region, and learn more about a particular focus. For example, issues and policies affecting traditionally underrepresented groups in study abroad is near to my heart, so being involved the Rainbow SIG is a way for me to develop that interest. Find what speaks to you and get involved!
4. Be Strategic with the Expo Hall
Even with the map that NAFSA provides to navigate this stadium-esque hall, it can be an overwhelming task to get through the Expo Hall without it making you feel a bit dizzy. As soon as you collect your badge and information packet at registration, I recommend taking time to sit down and look over the Expo Hall map in detail. It will give a feel for how things are set up, and make it a bit easier to navigate when you’re walking around, trying to find people for meetings, or just browsing the booths.
Many of my tasks at NAFSA (collecting video interviews, handing out GoAbroad Innovation Awards Badges, etc.) means I have to be strategic in my approach to the Expo Hall. It also helps me to make the most of it, and I figure it can do the same for you! Identify the booths where you’ll have meetings, where organizations are stationed that you want to get to know better, or where you’ll need to collect stickers for a reception later in the week.
One other thing about the Expo Hall: don’t forget that this is another prime place to have spontaneous meetings! If you’ve found some organizations you want to introduce yourself to, it’s safe to say some of these conversations can turn into full-fledged meetings. That being said, walk through the Expo Hall making eye contact and actually talking to people. Sounds simple, right? You’d be surprised how many people walk around just to collect swag, overlooking the opportunity to have direct interactions with people. Just something to keep in mind 😉
5. Keep Business Cards Organized
No, but really, you will save yourself a pounding headache if you do this throughout the week. You’re going to end up with so many business cards throughout the week, from a variety of events, receptions, meetings, etc., and the stack will become ridiculous if you don’t keep them organized.
One of the ways we do this at GoAbroad is by bundling business cards each night with a rubber band and marking them with the day we received them. Also, as soon as you receive a business card from someone make a couple of notes on the back about the conversation you had, where you met them, and what you need to do with follow-up. Really, anything works in this case – whatever helps you remember that person!
All of us at GoAbroad have also started using an mobile app called CamCard to export business card info directly to an Excel spreadsheet. If you or your organization goes over business cards at the end of the week like we do, this can be a massive timesaver when it comes to inputting information and follow-up details.
Sidenote: One of my favorite follow-up uses with business cards is to then go through LinkedIn and connect with those people that I met in person. If you’re going to do this, be sure you actually invest time to send a personal message with your “Invitation to Connect” so that people will actually want to say yes! Again, very simple yet very effective.