One of the aspects I enjoy most about my role as both a graduate student and paraprofessional is the opportunity for professional development. While learning and studying the field of higher education, I am simultaneously gaining professional experience as a graduate assistant in the Cohen Career Center. The opportunity to fulfill these dual roles was a significant factor in my decision to choose William & Mary. What I hadn’t anticipated were the countless other opportunities for professional development my graduate program would afford me.
This past week I had spent three days in the Shenandoah Mountains with a group of classmates in the Master’s program in Higher Education Administration. The six of us traveled to Wintergreen Resort in Nellysford, Virginia to participate in the Virginia Student Services Conference, which commenced three days of information sharing, networking, and social activities with professionals and students in the field of student affairs.
While the cohort of second-year students in my program encouraged many of us first-year students to consider attending the conference, I wasn’t sure I would have the opportunity. Concerns about missing work, class, and figuring out how to fund the trip, kept me from making a decision until late October, just a few short weeks from the conference. Fortunately, my supervisor and professor were supportive of the decision and I was even able to receive funding assistance from the university to attend. Having witnessed the many benefits this experience offered, I couldn’t be happier with the decision.
Panoramic views of the sunbathed Blue Ridge Mountains were their own reward on this trip, but the greatest benefit to attending any conference are the professional connections you make. As a first-year student in my program, still a year and a half away from graduation, I wasn’t looking for full-time employment, but networking with professionals at different colleges and universities from all over the state will certainly prove fruitful during a future job search, or landing a summer internship in the more near term. Bringing a stack of business cards, a notebook, and even a few copies of your résumé are strongly recommended for this reason.
As a new student in the field, I also found the interest sessions to be a valuable part of the conference experience. During the three days, I listened and asked questions on topics such as effective mentorship, staff recognition, personality types, and the religious identities of faith-based college alumni. Following up with presenters to thank them for what they shared could prove its own networking opportunity, but the information I gleaned from these sessions will also help to inform my studies and current professional practices. I’m already looking forward to sharing highlights of the conference with my supervisor and other colleagues I work with.
A third benefit of the conference was the collegiality and friendships I was able to build with classmates from my program and new people I met from other institutions. Especially in a diverse field, sharing discussion with individuals working in other student affairs roles allowed me to broaden my perspective and think about creative ways to improve work in my own functional area.
Conferences aren’t exclusive to graduate students, so if you have a chance as an undergraduate, graduate, or alumnus, I couldn’t recommend the opportunity more. Even if you’re not in the field currently, attending an industry conference can be a great way to explore a potential interest and establish a network if you do choose to follow that path.
Finding a venue with some sweet mountain views isn’t a bad idea either.