How Professional Association Conferences Give Me Life and Drain the Hell Out of Me

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I attended my 18th Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors Annual Meeting in December. I’ve written previously about  how attendance at a functional area association, even one outside of my day to day work and after 18 years of work in student affairs, is still an opportunity to learn about good work in the field of student affairs. In addition to learning, professional and personal relationships I’ve developed through AFA give me a sense of belonging and hope.

All of this aside, professional associations also drain me and give me cause to worry about our field. Here’s how one experience can both enriching and draining all at the same time.

Learning: I attend conferences to learn. I do this in three ways: attend sessions, facilitate sessions, and connect with colleagues to talk about issues. Student affairs association conferences, for the most part, tend to have good content and good facilitators doing the work. I always feel like I’m learning, even in sessions that might be “routine” for me. I have a learning orientation, but….

Not everyone does. Student affairs professionals must realize that we are not at conferences to vacation. Resources are put behind us to participate: Time away from work, money from the dwindling higher education budgets, etc. If I could change one thing about how people approach their time at professional conferences it would be that everyone would recognize this need to learn and then teach others. Additionally, no matter how much fun you have or how many relationships you want to nurture (for personal and professional reasons), attending sessions is tantamount. It is not in question: you go to things, you participate in learning for some significant period of time each day at the conference and then you share what you learned with others upon return.

Relationships: I attend conferences to maintain and nurture relationships. These are  professional and personal and often both. I appreciate those who have mentored and supported me and I try to pass that on to others. I enjoy time talking through issues. I enjoy time at dinner. At the bar. I enjoy time exercising before sessions start. I truly enjoy these relationships, but….

These relationships can be draining: some are terrific and there’s not so much an issue with the relationship but more about the time spent nurturing them. Staying up all night hanging with friends is something that’s particularly challenging if I also want to prioritize my learning. I have to figure out how to spend better time with people rather than less. There are also some relationships I need to spend time on repairing and some that I need to let go of – not for any reason other than I can’t be everything to everyone. My best self never shows up in that scenario.

Because I value supporting others, I find that I spend a lot of time at AFA in particular, but at any conference, I want to mentor and support. This means lots of hallway conversations, coffee and lunch meetings, fitting in discussions between sessions or at dinner, the bar, etc. I won’t stop doing this BUT it is time away from some of my prioritized relationships; can I support others while being supported myself?

Drama: Associations come with drama (don’t even get me started on the ACPA/NASPA consolidation matter) and AFA is no stranger to this. It’s particularly salient in AFA because (1) we’re a relationship oriented function, (2) not everyone plays nice together in the sandbox, and (3) for me, I’ve been so engaged in so many ways that I traverse in different circles, know different things, etc.

I see nothing valuable about unfounded drama. Sometimes the conversations that result from discussions (i.e. the never ending perception of an in/out crowd in professional associations, members’ perceptions of how leaders are doing) can be powerful, rewarding, learning experiences, but…

I have to step away from the drama. I often think I’m not immersed in it, but I become immersed because I respond to it. Because I value relationships, I want to ensure that all have the right information and we all know drama comes from perceptions that something isn’t right and that someone wasn’t involved or didn’t have the right information.

I also wonder if the drama continues to suck the life out of the relationships, how can we make progress? How can we move beyond territory and ownership to shared goals? Prevalent in AFA and any association, this is a real problem in student affairs: are we always truly about the right things or do we let personal hangups influence our work?

So, what does this mean for me and how can someone take this and use it for their own association experience:

1. If I am focused on learning, how can I do this in a way that doesn’t exhaust me. I am less willing to compromise the learning orientation but I also may need to be less involved in creating the learning experiences. Maybe going to sessions or facilitating one or two sessions rather than facilitating five is a good idea for me.

2. If I am focused on relationships, what do I need to do to prioritize the ones that matter most, incorporate opportunities for mentoring and relationship building, and minimize the time spent in interactions that may be valuable/important but not priorities? How can I ensure relationship building occurs and still get enough sleep to prioritize learning?

3. If I am focused too much on drama, or fixing perceptions, I get wrapped up in the things that drain me the most. My investment in professional associations is meaningful and I demonstrate care through my contributions. However, I can’t change the perception of all persons and I need to determine when I have crossed the line between getting involved in meaningful discussions about the future of an organization and the experiences of members and that of being dragged down into drama ridden, mean or spiteful. and often uninformed conversations.

We’ll see how I do. I don’t get as invested in ACPA or NASPA issues and tend to focus my learning and relationship orientations pretty well there. I imagine trying out this new balancing approach to engagement in professional associations, specifically their conferences, will end up with lots of hiccups rather than perfection, but I am committed to trying.

What are your experiences like in professional associations? How do you engage at conferences? What do you love and hate about these organizations?

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One thought on “How Professional Association Conferences Give Me Life and Drain the Hell Out of Me

  1. Thank you for this reflective perspective. Over the years, I have found that a large part of my professional development has come through focused participation at Student Affairs conferences and participation in Executive Leadership programs that have nothing to do with student affairs. By blending these two avenues, when I attend AFA/NASPA I always come back with a renewed vigor and absent the draining experience I use to have when attending these conferences.

    It may be just the function of my age but I now find building mentorships and trying to be a “talent scout” shifts how I attend conferences. I still have the relationship building time both in and out of sessions, but I find myself avoiding the drama and leadership issues. Instead, I am looking to find what genuine innovation is going on and connecting with colleagues who are now questioning the status quo in an exciting way. I also try to maintain my reading while at a conference as this helps me to decompress from the energy that I absorb on a routine basis.

    What I dislike about all the conferences I attend is the way there is a “burn the candle at both ends approach” to the time. I keep thinking that a common hope we have for students is they balance their lives and yet we tend to be poor role models for this point.
    When I came back from a conference drained, I would always miss opportunities to serve the higher purposes of my students. Now, I have clear points of focus when I return that I can engage in instantly. To achieve this, I have had to limit my social time as maintaining balance is my first priority. It was a harsh lesson to realize that often I had fallen into the same trap of telling my challenges and sad stories of frustration with colleagues as opposed to engaging in dialogue about changing the Greek conversation on a macro/micro level. The lessons that brought me to this insight were delivered outside of the higher education arena. When I accepted some of the basic premises, things changed for me quickly.

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