by Nick Prewett
One of the pleasures of serving as MASFAA President-elect is attending state conferences outside of my home association of MASFAP. Meeting new individuals, making new connections, and learning from engaging speakers is important and what our profession is about. Sharing ideas, learning how to navigate grey rules, and hopefully make connections for the future. As President-elect, I have the opportunity to meet state leaders and to compare state organization and structure. Thus far my travels have taken me to Indiana, Illinois, and lovely Brainerd, Mn. For those curious, the flight from Minneapolis to Brainerd was 22 mins wheels up to wheels down and if you do not turn off your cell phone, you seem to get data the entire flight at 11,000 feet in the sky (or so someone told me).
Attending a new conference brings me back to my early days as a financial aid professional. At the time, I had no idea what being a financial aid professional meant, but I will always remember attending my first KASFAA conference in Topeka. I admit this was prior to the social media days where you could keep up with colleagues around the country with a simple scan of your newsfeed. I was amazed at how people seemed to know each other, specific family details, and exchange numerous long lost friend hugs. I soon found that after a few conferences I transformed into one of those individuals. My personal connections helped me with the transition from KASFAA/RMASFAA to MASFAP/MASFAA. I truly believe connections around the country help me focus on my career as a financial aid professional.
After years of working in financial aid, attending a new conference of any kind still gives me a bit of anxiety: Who will I know? Where will I sit with at lunch? Will anyone take me along with them to dinner? Will I end up alone in my room early at night? Are people going to attend my session?
If you have ever had any of these feelings then you have been to a conference. If you have overcome these feelings then you have conferenced. If you met someone and followed up after the conference or at another conference, then you have done it well. If you built a boat out of cardboard and beat Sarah Edward’s team in a pool boat race, while accidently hitting Lori Vedder in the shin with a paddle, then you have excelled.
So on to these questions:
Who will I know? Actually lots of people it turns out. At ISFAA and ILASFAA I knew a fair number of the people there. For Indiana I drove in, getting up at 5 am to be to Indy to present a credentialing session at 1pm. Alex and Heidi welcomed me immediately upon arrival. It was great getting to know the new leaders of ISFAA. At ILASFAA due to a time commitment I flew, arriving at the hotel at 8:15 am. Bill met me at the front desk and gave me a rundown of the day. As I investigated the hotel layout, I continually bumped into people I knew. Tim, an SI participant came up to me and said he had had great success using red solo cups to practice packaging. (I guess people do pay attention) At MAFAA I arrived after dark to a sandwhich and sweet tea waiting in my room for me and quickly connected with Gale and Dick the next morning.
Where will I sit for lunch? This is always tricky, I often find the table game of where to sit and when to sit to be a challenge. No one wants to be the first person or the last person through a buffet line. At ISFAA I was encouraged to sit at the reserved tables up front, which takes the pressure off because I know many in the leadership. At ILASFAA I found a number on the back of my name badge that told me where to sit so I could “network.” As part of an ice breaker they distributed bouncy balls with random questions written on them. We would toss it around the table and where your thumb landed, you had to answer that question. (For the record, I would prefer a broken arm to a broken leg). MAFAA did things just a bit different with most meals in a restaurant, it is always tough to pick a 4, 6, 8 or 10 top table to sit at. For me, I just take a leap of faith and sit to meet someone new.
Will anyone take me along for dinner? Both ISFAA and ILASFAA had an evenings on your own. At ISFAA on the first night Marvin took me out to dinner for ISFAA, he was an expert on Indy and took me to the places that I would find enjoyable (he chose wisely). One the second night Alex took me in his lovely vanilla smelling car to a BBQ place in a fluffy snowstorm. For ILASFAA a number of people checked in with me to ensure I had a ride and I ended up in the third row seating with Katie Cooper (a state president exchanger from WV) in Michelle Trame’s Ford Explorer. (For the record, it is advisable to put the 3rd row head rests up before sitting in the very back, else it feels like a medieval torture device for your back.)
Will I end up in my room early? One of my beliefs about any conference is that people should NEVER go to their room before the late nightly news. While I get the idea that people need down time, just think that you have put time into getting somewhere to meet people and learn stuff and the last thing should be doing is watching Scandal in your room alone. For me that is not how you conference. ISFAA had an evening reception that turned into dinner out and the opportunity to make new friends. MAFAA had a night of bingo (Howdy Gary my MAFAA bingo buddy!) and a night of glow in the dark golf that sadly was canceled due to the monsoon rains. At ILASFAA there were minute to win it type game (my team won for the record), a dance floor and card games. One new activity for a conference was the obsession of ILASFAA folks putting together puzzles, but at least people were socializing.
Are people going to attend my session? I think anyone presenting hopes that people show up. At a conference, I always look at the schedule, find my time, and then see what I am up against. Honestly, no one wants to go up against an Ask a Fed, a town hall, or NASFAA credentialing, but you take what you can get to expand your profession. I always review the presentation schedules balancing content and presenter ability when I pick a session, the last thing you want is to be in a session with someone reading slides. MAFAA had one session for me and based on a solid crowd in my room, I’m guessing I wasn’t up against a federal session. At ISFAA I had one session + a credentialing and at ILASFAA I presented two sessions. I thought the material flowed and the questions were good. I hope people learned from what I had to say and I will be eagerly awaiting those follow-up email questions. (tip-great way to add to your network is to send a thank you or follow-up questions).
On my tour around MASFAA I’ve completed 3 states of the 3 I’s, 3 M’s, and WOW roadshow. Based on what I’ve seen thus far I am excited to report the future is bright for financial aid administrators in our region and I look forward to seeing new faces in the MASFAA leadership. I consider financial aid a profession, so networking is part of that. I challenge everyone to attend a conference and get out of your comfort zone, remember we all have that new kid in school feeling sometimes, let’s do all we can to welcome our fellow FAA’s.