Looking back at attending my first SEAHO last year, I remember feeling excited, a little nervous, and overwhelmed by the thought of attending my first large professional conference as a grad. That is understandable, since this was one of my first opportunities to network outside of my immediate colleagues and friends around the state. Now that I am a knowledgeable and worldly Second-Year Graduate student (HA!.), I have been able to reflect on my attendance at the 50th Annual SEAHO conference last year, and I realize there are a few tips I wish I had known, or at least taken to heart, going into the conference.
As a graduate student, conferences in general, and especially large conferences such as SEAHO, can be a little overwhelming. Not fully established as a professional, it can be daunting to meet and greet with some of the greats in the field- names you have heard and admire, and perhaps someday hope to be. However, don’t let your awe and wonder of those people inhibit you from introducing yourself, asking questions, and getting to know those individuals. Of course, do so at an appropriate time, perhaps after they present or while waiting outside of a session. They are busy folks. Don’t make it weird.
There are other important ways to make the most of attending a large conference. Surely you will go on to be one of those greats we were just talking about, as will many other people in attendance. Meet those people too! SEAHO is an excellent opportunity to meet other graduate students who will be able to shine a light on your experience, and at a minimum, are great to commiserate with about the struggles of grad school life. With this comes an important tip that one of my mentors has encouraged me to do: don’t just sit with friends! One of the easiest ways to meet people is to get to a session early, sit in the middle of a row and wait for new friends to join you. Introduce yourself, talk about why you wanted to attend this session, ask questions about their job or institution. It’s that easy. An important but often overlooked step in this process is to not immediately pull out your phone or tablet to look occupied. Although it can be much more comfortable to sit in the middle of a group of people you already know, or pull out your phone to look busy, networking during sessions is one of the easiest ways to build a connection.
With all that I’ve said, the biggest piece of advice I would tell my first-year self would be to take advantage of every opportunity but don’t overwhelm yourself. Be honest with yourself about your comfort level in certain situations and be honest with those around you, especially mentors, about how you are feeling throughout the experience. If this is one of the first conferences you are attending, you don’t want to leave feeling miserable about the experience solely because you didn’t take anytime to process in the way that you need to. However, be careful to be sensible with the time you are spending processing and decompressing. While you don’t want to be so overwhelmed that you can’t enjoy the experience, you also shouldn’t miss out on opportunities because you are taking time for yourself.
Overall, SEAHO was a great experience for my growth as a graduate student and professional. I am excited to get back this year to continue building the connections I have developed in the past year.