Written by: Clarissa Huffman
Sociology Level III
Have you ever attended a conference? Until now, I hadn’t. I was extremely shy about this – people around me seemed to be attending all of these amazing conferences and meeting all of these awesome professionals in their field, and gaining this valuable life experience. I sat and watched, thinking to myself, what do they have that I don’t? When I was asked to volunteer at the ‘Business of the Local’ session at the 2014 HIVEX conference, it was just around the time that I had begun collaborating with Experiential Education to start this blog. In deciding to take a leap and accept the volunteer position, I finally, after 5 years, answered my own question. Those students didn’t have anything in particular that I didn’t other than they had already done something that I wasn’t ready to do: step out of my comfort zone. I won’t lie to you: the first time I stepped into that room, I was absolutely frozen with terror. I was surrounded by professionals, young and old, many who knew each other, and had been to these events (maybe even at this exact venue) several times before. I felt out of my element. But once I sat down, and listened to the morning keynote speaker talk about cities and spaces, I relaxed. Hey, this guy is talking about subject matter that’s important to me. I have an opinion on this. Maybe I do fit in here! Trust me, once you have that click moment, your day will fall into place. After I listened to that keynote, I opened up and began to speak to the people at my table, and actively participated in the sessions. I learned a lot and made a lot of interesting connections. I’d like to leave you today with the three main things I learned from attending the HIVEX conference that will hopefully help you find the courage to step out of your comfort zone and attend your first conference as an undergraduate:
1) You will meet at least one person who is interested in keeping in touch with you. The man who sat next to me at my first table runs a company that specializing in helping young professionals and persons with disabilities employability skills. He chatted with me all day and observed the way I acted and reacted to stimuli at the conference. The very first thing he said to me shocked me as I didn’t have the answer he wanted. Want to know what it was?
“Can I have your card?”
I was floored. I’m just an undergraduate. Why do I need a contact card? Well, I learned that day, that its never too early to start to build your professional network. And I assure you, after that moment, I went home and designed myself a simple contact card. It seems so simple and so foreign, but I no longer attend professional events without a stack of them. Of course, it loses meaning to give them out to everyone you meet. But if you establish a connection with someone, and want to keep in touch, exchange cards.
2) FOLLOW UP FOLLOW UP FOLLOW UP. I can’t stress this enough. If someone gives you their contact information, they saw something in you, and they want to hear from you. Within a day or two, shoot them an email, or send a connection invite on Linkedin. Ask a meaningful question and link it back to the conversation you had in person. I guarantee they’ll remember you. You can never guess when a professional remembering your name in a positive manner can help you down the road. Start making those connections now!! They’ll remember you as driven and motivated and expect that you can bring that to the table when you graduate.
3) Conferences are interdisciplinary. Yes, even the specialized ones. HIVEX is a good example. It is geared towards ‘young professionals’ and the theme was ambition. Those are two very broad parameters. Do you have to be studying or working in a certain field to be considered a young professional? or to have ambition and drive? Absolutely not. The beauty about such a spectrum is that you can learn something new about what you do every day, from a totally different perspective. For example, I got to learn about my opinions on environmentally-geared city management from the perspective of a commerce grad looking into a startup to improve the image of Hamilton’s downtown. The potential for collaboration in a situation like that is endless. Let’s look at a different example. I’m (pretty much) a geography student, so let’s look at the Canadian Association of Geographers Annual Conference. The 2014 session theme was ‘Borders without Boundaries’. Some of the study groups included environment and resources and geography, but also indigenous peoples and public policy. As you can see, there is the potential here to think about geography from the perspective of a variety of different academic disciplines: geography, environmental science, indigenous studies, political science, policy, economics, to name a few.
My parting words to you would be this: don’t ever be discouraged by subject matter. One of the points of a conference is to bounce around ideas, and this is only effective if you have a variety of viewpoints. So yes, you, the political science student, the social work student, the anthropology student, should attend the CAG conference. Or any conference. And make your voice heard. I hope this post has given you the courage you need to sign up for your first undergraduate conference (or a new way to think about your next one). Sign up, participate, network, and learn something new!!