Authentically Surviving a National Professional Conference
Beware. This is a massive post with a lot of feels.
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My goal in attending the over 5,000-attendee national Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Educaiton (NASPA) conference in Baltimore, Maryland was to attend as an authentic student leader. My goal was not to get a job—like many of those attending for the Placement Exchange. My goal was not to gain a million Twitter followers. My goal was not to be anything I wasn’t. My goal was not to hide.
I wanted to be myself—that phrase we always tell our students to embrace.
And myself can be a bit much sometimes, and I recognize that.
Those who met me at NASPA quickly learned this.
So, I packed my bag—some flannel, some T-shirts, a vest, a cardigan, two dress shirts, a bow-tie, slacks, jeans and two pairs of shoes—I also packed food and some work out gear, but hardly had time for either.
And honestly, the dress shirts and bow-tie never saw the conference because I wasn’t feeling it. I brought them in case I felt the urge to have some fun with dress up time; yet, the time never came. I wanted to be comfortable throughout the conference experience and dressing up to fit in with the rest of the frame felt too forced to me. So I didn’t do it—
[Note: I’ll get to my reasoning later in a conclusion I originally wrote to be the intro to this piece, but felt it landed better as an ending. You can totally skip to it right now by going to the next section starting with a bold italic note and I wouldn’t even be offended or surprised. Sort of like a choose your own adventure! I write too much sometimes—this post being one of those times.]
|Opening night of NASPA with Bethany and Jack!|
(Picture stolen from Jack)
After the six-hour drive to Baltimore with my two cohort colleagues, Nadia and Ashrita, we found our hotel, unloaded our things—I took a quick nap—and then we made our way to the conference. Upon arrival, I sought out some Twitter folks, Bethany Tuller (@BethanyTuller) and Jack Korpob (@JackKorpob), because I knew they were there and I knew this conference was going to happen because of Twitter. It was great to finally meet them and discuss our lives as fellow #SAGrad.
This was the first national conference I’ve attended since what I’ve considered the mass influx of Twitter in Student Affairs over the past two years. So, to me, NASPA meant putting a lot of Twitter handles to faces! And that’s exactly what happened. I ran into so many incredible people that I’ve interacted with throughout the last two years or so and finally got to meet them face to face. It was truly inspiring to see how well Social Media functioned in making introductions easier for us at NASPA.
|Josie and I posing with the #SAChat pillow!|
We had #SAChat tweet ups, which were great to meet so many more folks that I’ve known virtually and could now know personally—mystical creatures like Lisa Endersby (@LMEndersby), Joe Sabado (@JoeSabado), James Frier (@JSFrier), Joe Ginese (@JoeGinese), Mairead KIernan (@Parade_withan_M), Amma Marfo (@AmmaMarfo), Matthew McGrath (@MMcGrath528) and the wonderful, Josie Ahlquist (@JosieAhlquist). Josie and I even got to offer folks the opportunity to take pictures with the #SAChat pillow! It was a wonderful opportunity to finally have human interactions with people who actually do exist and truly hold great insights and feelings toward this field. And the coolest part of the Twitter aspect of #NASPA14 is that we trended!! It was obvious once we started getting hackers…
Combatting those Twitter hackers/spammers by blocking and reporting spam became part of my role as I supported the Innovation Lab at NASPA for both Monday and Tuesday. The Innovation Lab was a great opportunity to teach and learn about how technology and social media play a massive role in our work at higher education and student affairs professionals. I helped people learn more about many aspects of social media and even signed a few folks up for their own very first Twitter accounts—including the chair of the NASPA conference, Frank Lamas (@LamasVPSA)!
|Helping out at the Innovation Lab!|
This opportunity allowed me to socialize and discuss with many student affairs folks and fellow #SAGrads about how we can integrate a more functioning and informed community through the advancements in technology and social media.
I was also able to represent the new NASPA Knowledge Community on Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education, which merely days old when NASPA began. So this was our first opportunity to reach out to institutions to share the vision we all have for bringing this KC into collaboration with all other KCs in hopes of truly demonstrating how many of the issues our students face are transferable through these issues of SES and class.
|My attire on Day 02 of NASPA, when the tattoo article published.|
This was such a bizarre feeling because I came to NASPA with specific people that I wanted to make sure I either met for the first time, or got to connect with from my past. Getting to connect with my former mentors from Oregon State University, Mamta Accapadi (@MamtaAccapadi) and Larry Roper (@LarryRoper), was incredible—while both were in passing, they each imparted quick bits of knowledge upon me that made everything worth it.
|Getting to meet up with Larry Roper (L) and|
Chris Van Drimmelen (R) was much needed.
Meeting up with the multi-talented jet-setting blogosphere champion, Eric Stoller (@EricStoller), was also quite the treat. Hearing him reflect on his perspectives of technology in higher education as well as how we must challenge the frame to make any true change in this field really resonated with me. He also spent much time at Oregon State, so it was great to discuss life in the Pacific Northwest with someone as perceptive as he—someone so perceptive that he pointed out the exclamation point at the end of my name on my nametag in the middle of his presentation session.
This exclamation point came up again during my opportunity to meet my future employers for the summer as I head back to the Baltimore area to work at Towson University. I met my future supervisors from Towson, one of which commented on my exclamation point—to which I said, “Well, I’m like a human exclamation point!” To which she responded, “That’s great—because you’ll be working with many human exclamation points!” It made me feel very comforted that I will have a welcoming community of professionals to work with for a few months.
Of course there were sessions that I attended! I learned a lot about how to challenge and approach best practices when supporting/creating an organization. I learned a lot about how to support college men through meaningful dialogue during a very lively discussion. I learned about how to support a campus that suffers from repeated sexual assault.
I attended Wes Moore’s opening keynote that started the conference off with a bang with his plea for us to engage our students in more than just their educational experience during college and to support them in extracurriculars. This sentiment also resonated with professional staff as Moore pontificated that, “when it’s time to leave here…make sure that it mattered that you were ever even here.”
Moore’s keynote was a breath of fresh air. And then I reached the closing ceremony and encountered Jon Lovett’s closing keynote speech. Lovett, President Obama’s formerspeech writer, is a hilarious man with a lot of knowledge. He spoke from a podium in a hoodie—I, too, was wearing a hoodie that day. In solidarity, of course. Lovett is a young man with a vision of authenticity that resonated with me unlike anything I’d ever heard. Among other brilliant words he spoke, Lovett called for a “renaissance of integrity” in which those of us in leadership/administrative roles can influence the pivotal college years of young people and inspire them to do great things by simply staying true to ourselves as role models.
|Jon Lovett: Pretty chill role model if you ask me.|
And I was tweeting and snapping my fingers along with Lovett every step of the way. For those unaware, snapping is generally done when agreeing with what someone is saying, to encourage them and hopefully motivate them to continue exploring the roll they're on. My fingers couldn't snap fast enough for Lovett's speech. It was a blast to be fueled with such invigoration for change in this field. I had to share my support on the Twittersphere. It felt great to feel validated yet again by this keynote that was supporting every claim I’ve made throughout my time in student leadership and into being a higher education paraprofessional.
And then Lovett said he had time for one question.
So I walked to the mic.
I thanked him for saying what we all needed to hear and said that I had only one question to ask.
It was a simple question—can I shake your hand?
And he said of course, and shook my hand in front of everyone.
I wanted to shake his hand because he was preaching exactly the words I wanted to preach. He was expressing every frustration I’ve ever felt and everyone in the room was listening to it. I wanted to shake his hand because for the lesson of authenticity he shared, I felt I had been living it throughout this conference. I wanted to shake his hand because it was incredible to see someone so well-respected—someone who essentially helped our president get elected—get such a great response to what I was living out.
During this massive Twitter explosion spurred by my tenacity for everything Jon Lovett had to say, the NASPA folks contacted me on Twitter and informed the public that I was to be acknowledge for my Twitter participation through the conference. When I strolled into their office, I was greeted with loud snaps and excited cheers and they informed me that I had won a Best Tweeter award for consistently engaging people throughout the conference on Twitter—especially for my contributions to the conversation around Lovett’s closing speech. They even put me in the closing blog post for the event!
I told the staff this felt like one of the oddest forms of validation in our field, but I’ll take it! Given the work I put in with the Innovation Lab and through engaging folks online, I felt it was a great token of support in moving forward with this career. Especially since I felt I was validated while functioning as my 100% authentic self. As I left, the group told me to "Keep Snapping," something that will always stick with me.
It meant everything to me.
|Me on the final day posing with the NASPA|
staff after winning Best Tweeter
Much of my decision to avoid professional attire was two-fold. Firstly, the decision came on the heels of having to finish a paper while attending the conference, so I had that lingering over me; so, for as much as I wanted to feel like a paraprofessional at this conference—I was certainly attending as a student.
Secondly, my word of the year for 2014 is Risk.
So I wanted to take a risk and take this tiny decision—seemingly simple to me—something vastly beyond what anyone else did for this conference, and try it out. It was wonderfully embraced by those I came into contact with. People were open to discuss the true functionality of how supporting authenticity can operate even within student affairs professionals and budding professionals like myself.
Because if student affairs professionals are to support authenticity in our students, we are hypocrites if we don’t live it out ourselves.
Dressing up during that conference, to me, would have felt like I was lying to myself. I am not a professional. Yet. Even when I become one, that doesn't mean I am going to give in to the suits every day! I am still very much a student functioning in a role that serves other students. Sure, I am graduate student, but I don't see how that slight disconnect changes anything for me. I want to be approachable for my students and I want them to be comfortable with me. Some attire choices may send the message that I am above them and I do not want that. And is that the message we should send our students?—some of which who literally cannot afford "interview clothes"/"business clothes." Therefore, I cannot present myself as someone above what I truly am—a student. With this, I chose the shirts, the jeans, the flannel—I chose comfort over conformity.
And this isn’t bashing professional attire whatsoever—if you are comfortable wearing suits and ties all day, by all means. Do it. Do you. I honestly feel I “clean up well” when I feel comfortable enough to rock some slacks and a bow-tie one day and flannel with a beanie the next day. I can do it. I just don’t choose to do so every day. And shouldn't feel forced to do so, either.
|I think I clean up well. Check out the bowtie!|
Mandating or simply expecting "appropriate"/business attire isn’t a sign of ultimate respect. "Appropriate"/business attire is the sign of conformity that functions as the byproduct of privilege and oppression—the control of the ruling class to keep the oppressed class in check by expecting them to dress a certain way to function and be successful in society.
Believe me, I recognize this discussion enters a realm of white male privilege that functions MUCH differently for me than it does across race, class, and gender lines—because this is an essential facet to acknowledge. But that’s for a future post I plan to write using some of this material and actual scholarly work to support my outlandish/anarchist views.
Consider this a call to arms in which I truly feel there truly needs to be an insurgence in the way we consider professional attire/business attire/business casual. This rethinking will benefit of our students and their authenticity, it will benefit of ourselves and our own authenticity, and it will benefit our field—which already stands as a community filled with the most unique and inspiring people in the world.
I drove six-and-a-half hours south to Baltimore to hang out with a bunch of student affairs professionals and all I got was validation, incredible learning experiences, and an awesome hoodie. So, you know, all in all, it was a great trip.