I’m definitely an introvert. I’m not painfully shy, and I’ve even been in situations where I genuinely enjoyed getting to know strangers (I never expected to have so much fun while networking in my latest job searches), but given the choice to attend a big, exciting opening reception or go back to my room, order room service, and enjoy my stories on Netflix, Netflix would win every time.
I recently had the pleasure of attending the NAFSA Region III conference in Little Rock. And I mean it when I say “pleasure.” I just started working in international higher education three years ago when I joined ECE as the senior director of marketing. International higher ed has a lot of conferences. And I actually really enjoy attending them, whether I’m representing ECE in the exhibit hall, presenting on leadership, or attending sessions and learning more about our field. But I’ve had to force myself to become more comfortable with the “social” aspects of conferences, and I think I’ve come up with some good strategies and insights that certainly help me get through a few days with lots of other people, and I hope they can help you, too.
People in higher ed are largely very kind and friendly – don’t be afraid to introduce yourself. It’s pretty easy to do when you sit down next to someone in a session or at lunch. What’s the worst that can happen? They give you a friendly hello and go back to whatever they were doing (probably looking at their phone). Their loss. What’s the best? You make a new connection that can help you in your area of responsibility or career, or better yet, that you can help.
Ask questions. People like to talk about themselves. Focus on asking questions that you’re genuinely interested in knowing the answers to. Have you been to this city before? Where do you live? What’s the favorite place you’ve been for a conference? What do you like to do with your free time? How long have you been in your job? Have you always worked in international higher ed? Conversations can be very easy when you’re asking the questions and letting someone else do most of the talking. And questions are bound to reveal something you have in common.
Take advantage of smaller group opportunities. One of my favorite experiences at Region III was the dinner that I attended with five other women who all signed up for the same restaurant outing. It was easy to introduce myself and get to know them in such a small group. We talked, laughed, and had a great meal. There was no shortage of conversation topics, and I look forward to running into them again at future conferences.
Volunteer. Another opportunity I really enjoyed at Region III was volunteering to review resumes for other attendees. I met three young professionals and was able to provide them with some guidance based on my many years of experience hiring and looking for work and marketing myself. I love having an assignment. It’s a great way to contribute as well as have an excuse to interact with others without floundering, wondering how to approach the situation.
Give yourself a break – it’s OK not to attend those big receptions. Or if you do, to grab your dinner and use your drink ticket and then retire to your room or go out exploring the city. It’s hard to make a good connection at those receptions, most of which are loud and filled with people who are hanging out with their colleagues or reconnecting with people they haven’t seen in a while. There are few things I hate more than entering a room full of people I don’t know and having to break into conversations. There are better ways to meet people, so most of the time, I just don’t do it. Or if I do, it’s for the free food! It’s easy to blend in, grab your food, and go.
If you do go to a reception, sit. I’ve found it’s a lot easier to talk to people who are already positioned and there’s an extra seat (or spot at the high top) next to them. I’ve had some great conversations with people that I sat down next to at a reception. Only once did I sit with three people who used to work together and were deep in catching up mode. They were kind but clearly into their conversation, so I ate my apps and excused myself. No harm done. After my second trip to the buffet line I sidled up next to someone at a high top who was also from Milwaukee, started talking, and ended up closing the place down.
AACRAO and NAGAP are coming up, and I’m looking forward to them – both for the conferences themselves and for the chance to escape to my quiet room and settle in with Netflix (pack your own Roku or Fire Stick… or I suppose you could watch live TV like an animal) at the end of the day.
Leigh Lane Peine was hired as the senior director of marketing by ECE in 2016. She has spent her entire career in marketing in various fields and intends to spend the rest of it in international higher education.