As a first year graduate student, it is hard to afford attending many conferences. With registration fees, hotels, food, entertainment, and other incidentals, often times, professional development falls to the wayside in favor of your pocketbook. However, there was one conference I wasn’t planning on skipping to save my wallet. On May 17 and 18, the Jersey Alliance, the Garden State’s ACPA division, hosted the Big Ideas Conference, a conference that focused on the next inventive steps in higher education. According to the overview, “This is a conference for agents of innovation–a relatively small group, (several hundred), revolutionaries who are tired of incremental improvements and guardians of the status-quo.” With such high expectations and an untraditional format, the conference had a lot to lose, but so much more to gain if it was a success.
Prior to the conference, the conference planning team was incredibly active on social media, especially Twitter. Not only tweeting reminders about registration and logistics, but articles and tips on becoming the next Big student affairs practitioner. Whether it was their intention or not, their professional development tweets drummed up excitement over the conference, and gave followers a taste of what the two days would be.
The conference was split into two days: day one was styled after TED talks, 20 minutes sessions where distinguished pioneers in their field (only a handful were specifically in higher education) discuss effective practices, thinking outside the box, and their Big idea. Day two had break out sessions, interactive, specialized gatherings akin to traditional higher ed conferences.
Two speakers in particular stood out to me. Kohl Crecelius (@kohlgreyson) founded Krochet Kids, an organization that raises money for Africa by crocheting cool clothes. Kohl’s Big Idea had nothing to do with higher education, yet Krochet Kids highlights an important tenet of student affairs: empowering our students to make a difference. Crocheting is such a minute activity, yet Kohl and his organization have found a way to make it help others. For more information, check out http://www.krochetkids.org/.
The second speaker, Dale Stephens (@dalejstephens) founded Uncollege: a movement that espouses that college is unnecessary for people to become successful members of society (@uncollege). During his welcome speech, I remember distinctly Matt Ferguson, host of the Big Ideas Conference) saying “you are going to be uncomfortable at points during this conference.” Stephens’ presentation was one of those points for me. As a student affairs practitioner, I work everyday with students that are in college and for someone to say that it isn’t necessary, made me do a double take. We are constantly told that we must go to college to make it in this world, and Stephens’ message was just the opposite: don’t go to college and you’ll be better off. That being said, Stephens’s presentation lit a fire under me. Rather than attacking this 20 year old, I found his message as an inspiration to do the best I can for my students. Every resident or advisee I interact with is paying $100,000 to go to college, I need to make sure that they are gaining the benefits of that massive debt. That helping isn’t always waiting on them hand and foot, but providing them the necessary conditions for their development and learning. Finding the appropriate balance between customer service and challenge is a hard one to find for some, including myself. Stephen’s courage in facing 200 student affairs professionals should also be noted. At 20 years old, he was facing an audience that ran the gamut: graduates studying colleges to senior SA officers who have dedicated their lives to college. Even if I didn’t completely agree with his entire message, his bravery in facing the audience was amazing and commendable.
I missed some of the day one sessions in order to volunteer with the conference staff. While I missed out on some amazing speakers (like the Chopstick-Fork Principle writer, Cathy Bao Bean), I was able to help the hard working conference staff with a few tasks. Throughout my shift, I was able to help conference attendees with various questions and concerns, all the while, being with some of my cohort members who stayed behind with me. This singular experience highlighted me two things: I will seek volunteer options at future conferences and that my cohort is such a great support system.
I attended various breakout sessions on Day two. In “Social Entrepreneurship, Bid Ideas,” Jeffrey Robinson, a professor in the Rutgers business school, discussed how to create your own social entrepreneurship idea. By laying out the foundation and theory behind it, we were able to ensure our projects had focus before action. In “Student Affairs Strategic Communications: Integrated, Social, Measurable,” SA social media guru Eric Stoller explained the importance and impact social media is having not only on our college students, but also on the larger society. With jokes, kittens, and infographics, Stoller’s presentation proved valuable, even for the social media saavy.
The sessions were broken up by an interview with Eric LeGrand, the former Rutgers football player who became paralyzed during a game. His story is one of perseverance. In the face of physical adversity LeGrand has become a symbol for all of us to continue to strive, to have courage and to believe. I’m not a sports guy in the least, but his story made me realize that it’s all about bravery and loyalty, no matter what obstacles are put in your way.
The Cool Curators, a program museum of other schools’ Big ideas, was a great way to interact with presenters on a more intimate level. From Faculty Engagement Outside the Classroom, up on by my alma mater NYU, to Lippencott Legacy, brought to us by CSA’s own Charles Kuski, many of the presentations planted a seed of an idea in my head as I continue on as an #SAGrad. Next year, I would love to show off my Big idea there.
Since the closing remarks at the conference, I keep asking myself: what’s MY big idea? How can I create something that will show others my creativity and prowess? More importantly, what legacy can I leave at Rutgers, FSU, or other institutions that will not only help students, but also inspire them and motivate them to help another with their big ideas?
Make sure to check out @BigIdeasEDU and http://www.bigideasproject.org for more information about next year’s conference and tips and advice on becoming a rebel in student affairs.