A First Timer’s Perspective on NAFSA13

Sparky doesn't pack light either!

Sparky doesn’t pack light either!

I felt entirely unprepared for my first NAFSA annual conference. Despite reading multiple blog posts about attending the conference for the first time (like these two great posts: The Real Deal: Secrets of the NAFSA National Conference by Carrie Niesen of melibeeglobal.com or NAFSA for Newbies – 2013 Edition by Brooke Roberts of InsideStudyAbroad.com), ordering a stack of business cards to exchange with other attendees, and printing out a few copies of my resume (with plans to get it reviewed at the career center and make changes), I still felt unorganized and unprepared. I had planned out a packed schedule of volunteering and attending sessions, knowing full well that things would change as soon as I got there. In a way, planning your NAFSA schedule is a lot like planning your college course schedule; sessions that sound awesome will, by fate, overlap and even a session that sounds like a great fit on paper (or on the computer screen) might not be such a great fit after all.

Like most of my Twitter feed, I was up late into the night packing and even had to toss a few things into the dryer right before I left. This only added to that feelings of anxiety and nervousness; “What if I don’t meet anyone?” I asked myself, an entirely preposterous question to ask because it’s impossible not to meet a single person at NAFSA! I am an introvert by nature (which you probably already knew if you’ve read my post about study abroad for introverts), so the idea of walking up to a person, introducing myself and launching into my elevator pitch is uncomfortable and somewhat terrifying. Aside from that though, I really enjoy meeting and talking to new people! What helped ease my nerves a bit is this: almost everyone feels somewhat awkward approaching a stranger and striking up a conversation. And it’s always easy to get a conversation started when you’re carrying around a cardboard cut out of a spotlight.

And hey! I survived a year in Germany knowing only one person upon arrival in country, so I could definitely handle a week at NAFSA. Especially because I already knew several people attending, including my fellow Study Abroad Spotlight intern, Kristin Uyl, and our fearless leader, Emily Sweeney.

Shine bright like a spotlight!

Sparky always insists on controlling the radio. Can you guess what his favorite song is?

I road tripped to St. Louis with Kristin and another international education enthusiast. All my nerves seemed to disappear without a second thought, replaced by the sheer excitement of meeting Kristin (and Sparky!) and finally making it to St. Louis. If you follow our Twitter feed or our Facebook posts, then you saw how much fun we were having with Sparky on the long drive.

Unfortunately, I missed out on the entire first day of my NAFSA experience, including the First Timers Speed Networking event and the Education Abroad Knowledge Community reception because I was sick in bed with a 24-hour stomach virus. This was not the start to NAFSA I had envisioned and I felt “behind” after missing the first day, as if all the networking that could ever take place had already happened.

Initially I had planned to volunteer as a way to earn back part of my conference registration fee and as a way to force myself to meet people. I had to cancel a few of my shifts while I was sick and in the end I decided to cancel the rest of my shifts as well. I am still not sure if this was the right decision, but in doing so I freed up more time to attend sessions, explore the expo hall and check out the poster fairs. As much as I was looking forward to volunteering and the opportunity to walk up to strangers and start conversations without feeling awkward (and of course that reimbursement), it was nice to be in control of my entire NAFSA schedule; I chose which sessions to attend and I had time to take a step back, rest, and refuel on coffee.

Because it’s absolutely exhausting. Even if you’re sitting in sessions most of the day, the mentality is “go go go!” For me, trying to engage in the sessions and think of ways to apply what I heard to my job search, future career, and my work here at Study Abroad Spotlight was almost as tiring as if I had been talking the entire time. I didn’t experience much of the nightlife in St. Louis or the famed NAFSA after parties, because I didn’t really have the energy after being sick and attending sessions and plenary speakers all day.

Despite the rough start, I had a very positive first experience and am already excited about NAFSA 2014 in San Diego. I think the key to my successful first conference experience is having an established network of folks in the international education community to connect with, even if we’ve never met in person. This network, whether it’s through Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or as part of a virtual internship like this one here at Study Abroad Spotlight, helps ground you during the overwhelming experience of a NAFSA annual conference.

Interns Kristin and Emily hanging with Sparky at the NAFSA World's Fair opening celebration.

Interns Kristin and Emily hanging with Sparky at the NAFSA13 World’s Fair opening celebration. (Image credit: Stephanie Cisneros)

A few highlights from the week include: meeting so many excited and enthusiastic members of the international education community (many of whom I’d already interacted with on Twitter), attending the Tweetups throughout the week, grabbing lunch with fellow first timers and/or job seekers from the Education Abroad Graduates and Young Professionals LinkedIn group, participating in CISabroad.com’s Going Places Race (Sparky’s Spotlighters took home the Spirit Award), attending sessions on technology and social media in the field, which has sparked (hehe, get it!) some great ideas for the Study Abroad Spotlight blog, introducing Sparky to everyone I met, and of course, finally meeting Kristin and Emily after working with them for months!

Now it’s time to follow up on my conference experience, harness my enthusiasm and get to work cultivating connections and implementing new ideas for the blog. I’ve got a stack of business cards waiting for me, a newly created international education list on Twitter and more tabs open in my browser than I know what to do with. See you next year in San Diego, fellow NAFSAns!


Emily Caskey is an intern here at Study Abroad Spotlight and a notorious over-packer  She studied abroad in Rostock, Germany for 10 months and interned in Berlin for two summers. To learn more about her experiences abroad, check out her spotlight and follow her on Twitter @emilcask.

Brooke Roberts

Brooke studied abroad in Geneva, Switzerland; Orleans, France and London, England. She is now the Senior Vice President at GoAbroad.com

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