Confessions of a NAFSA first timer: the 2014 experience

First published on LinkedIn

I have been musing about writing this article for almost a year now. After an exciting group exercise at a Pre-Conference Workshop of Janet Bennett, I decided I am going to write a blog about my 2014 NAFSA experience. Then came the next day’s workshop (and disappointment) and a whirlwind of meetings at the NAFSA Fair. Tons of follow-up emails and messages later, the article was lost in the to-do lists – pushed aside or always at the very bottom of the list.

11 months later, here I am…
After receiving countless alerts and announcements about the upcoming NAFSA Conference 2015, I finally got enough reminders that I just have to get down and do this!

Purpose and Agenda

Strategic planning meetings occur either at the end or start of each year and during these meetings, goals are established and activities set to achieve those goals. Whether you’re from a university, a college, a recruitment or placement agency, an English language school, etc, if you’re considering participation at a NAFSA Conference I would recommend discussing it with your institution’s decision makers and colleagues at those planning meetings for two reasons: (1) you can be more strategic in designing your NAFSA Conference Program; (2) when your attendance to NAFSA has the backing of your institution, it may ensure that your follow-up activities will be given priority and support.

In 2014, I attended NAFSA as a representative of the University of Manitoba’s Extended Education. At that time, Extended Education was revamping its unit strategy on international programming and recruitment. I registered my attendance at NAFSA with two goals in mind – first, to gauge program interests in specific regions of the world (informal market research) and second, to increase international program partnerships through recruitment.

The other dimension of NAFSA participation is, of course, personal. Are you interested in the Conference theme or wanting to meet and network with colleagues? Are you convening or facilitating a session? Is it for professional development? Are you new to higher education?

After more than a decade developing and implementing education programs in Asia and Europe, I am ready to get to know the Americas. A big chunk of my professional career involved convening consultative meetings, workshops, seminars and conferences but I have never, myself, attended one in the Americas. Hence, the personal dimension of my NAFSA participation is getting to know the dynamics of a conference in North America.

Suffice to say, I was on a mission! And because of these goals, I ended up with a very packed NAFSA program (and I’d talk about what I mean by “packed” in a moment), but it was intentional and designed to be just like that.

Meeting marathon – beware!

As mentioned previously, my attendance at NAFSA 2014 was both for recruitment and for informal market research. Leading up to the Conference, I received about 40 meeting invitations from universities (existing partners and potential partners), recruitment agencies and service providers. I ended up accepting about 20-25 meetings with institutions from Asia, Latin America and Europe. I chose to accommodate most of them since I had also planned to do the informal market research during the one-on-one meetings with institutions.

Would I do it the same way for my next NAFSA conference? I would more likely choose to meet with slightly fewer universities, and add meetings with organizations conducting market research such as PIE and ICEF and other higher education networks, in my agenda. Having said this, however, I’ve had enriching conversations and insights from that multitude of meetings. After NAFSA, I developed the Extended Education International Guidebook, which our team brought on the road – for our recruitment trips in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Thirty minute one-on-ones: spend it well

Most of my meetings were planned for 30 minutes. However, I ended up talking to my counterpart only for about 15-20 minutes. I found that in each meeting, we would spend the first five minutes introducing ourselves, our role/position and our respective universities. It would be ideal to move this “5-minute introduction” to the email exchange platform, before the conference. I would also recommend explicitly sharing your objectives at the point of requesting/confirming the meetings. Are you looking for institutional partnerships? Joint programming? Student exchange, research, etc? This could help you decide and prioritize which meeting invitations to confirm, or not.

And what about the other five minutes? Well, this is the other tip I could share after getting lost in the great big hall of NAFSA expo! When you’re accepting and scheduling your meetings, it may be a good idea to have the exhibition floor plan in front of you. A strategy that could help manage your time at NAFSA is clustering your meetings based on the floor plan – i.e. try to group together meetings with institutions that are set-up adjacent or near each other in the floor plan. There were a couple of meetings which I missed because I was late – going into the meeting or coming back to my booth from a meeting at the other end of the exhibition hall!

Info, info, info, then sign up for your Pre-conference workshop

I mentioned about professional development as a personal goal for attending NAFSA. One of my most important takeaway points from attending NAFSA 2014 is that I should be careful when choosing the professional development session to sign up for. I registered for two workshops and ended up having two different experiences – one rewarding and exciting and the other completely disappointing. I had already mentioned that I enjoyed the Intercultural Workshop (not the exact title) facilitated by Janet Bennett. The next day, another workshop made me want to just leave and go back to the comforts of my hotel room. Never mind that the workshop felt a bit disjointed because of more than six presenters. What I found hardest to understand is that the speakers ignored the contexts of their international workshop participants. It was as if they were speaking with colleagues from the same college, from the same city, or state. Perhaps I was being too picky or moody but blame me for being a veteran workshop/conference organizer for almost 15 years – I was definitely expecting more from a conference that boasts 10,000 (and counting) participants every year. So much for moaning! What I would recommend is for YOU to request names and short bios of speakers from the NAFSA Secretariat before signing up for a workshop, at least if you don’t want to be unpleasantly surprised like me.

Follow up, for short-term and long-term wins

It is important to prepare, and do the spadework before NAFSA. The real work, however, comes after the face-to-face meetings, when you have to take those exploratory discussions to the next level. It takes commitment and motivation to do well with the follow-ups. It can be a real issue, as you come back to your office and you see how much catching up you need to do – the day-to-day tasks, follow-ups from previous trips and then additional follow-ups from NAFSA meetings. But one could also argue that this process can be exciting. The one thing that makes me motivated after a multitude of meetings is the challenge of converting those discussions into real and concrete program partnerships.

So you’ve done the first bit – introduction, face-to-face meeting, and you’ve established “goodwill” with your counterparts. Now that you have prospects written in your notes, how would you take the discussions forward?

  • This is a no-brainer but I would underscore the importance of a thank you message. And it is reasonable to expect a thank you email back from your counterpart. Pepper your message with anecdotes from your meeting which could add a personal touch, and distinguish your thank you email from other bland or impersonal thank you messages.
  • Share the information and insights you gained from your NAFSA meetings. It is not so much about reporting. More importantly, it is preparing the ground for follow-up activities that would involve not only yourself but your other team members.
  • Prioritize your follow-ups and go for those institutions with clear partnership opportunities. After the thank you correspondence, your next email can include a general summary of your discussions. You may also choose to focus on one or two initiatives you wish to discuss further with the potential partner institution.
  • If you’re emailing a counterpart with whom you have no clear leads yet, maintain your cool, be nice and ask if they would like to be part of your mailing list or receive your newsletter. One day, they may come back to you for a specific program that they happened to hear about through those promotion channels.

I hope this first-hand account and the tips help, as you prepare for Boston. Safe travels and I’m sorry if this post is a bit late. In any case, can’t we reference it for NAFSA 2016!? I certainly will.

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