A Gathering of Thousands: Reflecting on Community and Collaboration at Annual Conference

May 17, 2013

By Stephen Ferst

When I touch down in St. Louis, it will be my 18th annual conference. Not only has the conference grown in size since I began attending, but it's also grown in sophistication and quality. Over the years, I've seen the event as a first-timer, a presenter, an exhibitor, and now as chair of the Annual Conference Committee (ACC).

I vividly remember my first conference. I sat wide-eyed, soaking up the collective wisdom of those who paved the roads before me. I scribbled notes on paper, scoured the offerings at the bookstore, and scored freebies in the Expo Hall. I was lucky enough to have a mentor who brought me to the conference, helped me choose sessions, and taught me to navigate its offerings. By the end of the week, I belonged to an incredible community of committed educators.

During subsequent conferences, I picked up tips and made new connections. I was ready to submit a proposal and was accepted. That first proposal and the first time presenting was a new view on the conference. Instead of simply absorbing, I was expected to deliver. I spent weeks preparing my talk, re-writing and polishing, and practicing my delivery. When I stood to deliver that session, something clicked. It wasn't the power of the microphone, but the notion that as the field expanded, a body of knowledge had begun to accumulate, and I could help deliver it. From that first presentation, I never looked back. I accepted all offers to co-present, submitted frequent proposals, and helped to develop and deliver numerous training materials. As a result, I was rewarded with more colleagues, friends, and associates, who allowed me to grow professionally and personally.

Over the years, another role gave me a different perspective of the conference—that of an exhibitor. Exhibitors attend the conference for reasons that go beyond the learning opportunities. They've invested in their booths and offer a product or service, from partnerships to software, insurance, housing, books, T-shirts, travel services, or advice. Each and every exhibitor knows the pain of exhibiting and the thrill of meeting a new contact or refreshing an old one. It is in the Expo Hall that much of the business-side of our field takes place. A kinship forms among those who spend more than 30 hours in the Expo Hall over just a few days—far more time than anyone else might.

There is one role I've played, however, that I relish more than any other, and that is serving as ACC chair. Conference chairs are tasked with translating the vision of the Board of NAFSA and the goals of the organization into learning opportunities for more than 8,000 attendees. Sounds simple, but NAFSA is a complex organization representing members from around the world, working in all aspects of the field. This work starts more than 18 months in advance of opening ceremonies. Preparing for St. Louis, I worked with leaders and members to develop a theme, set goals, and create a team of dedicated committee members. Together, we developed a call for proposals that reflected the conference theme of Ideals and Impact in International Education. We read and selected hundreds of proposal submissions, developed workshops, invited guest speakers, discussed networking opportunities, and more. While the sheer volume of work to bring together this gathering of thousands has been vast, the rewards are even bigger. The opportunity has allowed me to continue that deep-held desire to professionalize our field, to educate newcomers and veterans alike, and to push ourselves to find answers to the problems we face together. I hope that this conference is everything you expect it to be, and more. I look forward to seeing you in St. Louis!

What are you most looking forward to at conference? Let me know on Twitter at @StephenFerst. Also, be on the lookout for my daily blog posts during the annual conference.


Annual Conference Chair Stephen Ferst is director of the Center for International Studies at Kean University, New Jersey. He has been working professionally in international education since 1989 as an adviser, recruiter, resident director, program officer, and director. Ferst studied abroad in Israel and lived and worked abroad in the United Kingdom. He has presented at numerous conferences and is a recipient of the Lily von Klemperer Award and the 2008 NAFSA Advocate of the Year. He earned a doctorate from Rutgers University.


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