A First-Time Student Attendees Guide to ASPA

By Amber Myers-Ferguson

It can sometimes be intimidating for a master’s student to attend a conference full of professionals in the field, which is exactly how I IMG_1375felt before I got to New Orleans for the 2013 ASPA conference. For me, I was the only master’s student from my university that was present and around ten of the professors from my university were also in attendance. Needless to say, I felt the pressure to make an impression not only with the professors from my university but also to reflect well on my university with the program directors, professors, and deans from other universities.

So, a little about me…I am pursuing a Master of Nonprofit Management and a Fellow with the Center of Public and Nonprofit Management at the University of Central Florida. My plans after graduating in December 2013 are to pursue a doctorate in Public Affairs, Public Administration, or similar program. My research interests mainly involve the nonprofit sector however I also have interests in international development, social entrepreneurship, and environmental policy related issues. Going into the ASPA conference I had two goals: network with as many people as possible and learn something along the way!

IMG_1001Arriving at the conference I found that registering was quick and easy! The volunteers at the registration counter were very helpful yo a first-timer/student. There was a display table with a variety of ribbons that attendees could attach to their name badge lanyard signifying their status such as “speaker”, “presenter”, “new member”, “student”, “first time attendee”, etc. I was told by a very nice gentleman I met in the elevator that if you wear the student or first-time attendee ribbons, seasoned attendees will greet you and welcome you to the conference (Some of you shy people may want to avoid the ribbons in this case!).

However, it was nice that most people wore the ribbons because it allowed me to easily identify other students or first-timers. Speaking of students, there were a lot more than I expected! It made me feel more comfortable that there were people like me at the conference probably feeling just as nervous as I was.

The nice thing about the conference for students is that there are a variety of presentations just for students. In fact, a student summit was held on the entire day on Saturday. The summit included an orientation and presentations about networking, resume building, and mentoring. You didn’t have to go to every single presentation during the day. You could pick and choose which presentations were appropriate for you and go to panel sessions in between. I would recommend going to at least a couple student summit presentations because it’s a great way to meet and make friends with students during the conference. I was actually able to make friends the first day during a student summit presentation and have people to go to lunch with and hang out with during down time the rest of the conference.

Let’s end on a couple of helpful hints and tips to use at the next ASPA conference (or any other professional/academic conference in the future):

  • Bring plenty of business cards. Most of the students even had business cards so make sure you bring yours. I printed resumes as well but didn’t give any out at all. I wouldn’t worry about bringing printed copies of your resume to the conference.
  • Dress is business casual to business professional. Some people had suits (I was one of them and didn’t feel overdressed at all) and some just wore nice blouse/button up shirt with slacks.
  • Be strategic about your schedule. Look at the program guide online ahead of time and plan your day(s) out accordingly. Pick which panel sessions and meetings you want to attend. If you wait till the day of you might feel overwhelmed. Make sure to also schedule time for fun to enjoy the city.
  • Plan your meals. Food is not included (at least not this year) in the registration fee so make sure you plan your meals ahead of time. Some meetings and receptions do have food but the information you will receive will explicitly mention if food is being served.
  • Join a section ahead of time. I would recommend getting involved in ASPA by joining and being an active participant of a section. For example, I joined a newly formed section called NP3: Nonprofit Policy, Practice, and Partnerships and signed up on a committee during the conference. Usually each section holds meetings, special receptions, and workshops for their members. It’s just another way to get engaged with professionals with similar interests all over the country.
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