By Nick Soper

Over the past few years, I’ve had a few first conferences—the annual WACAC meeting, the annual HECA conference, and smaller ones like Share, Learn, Connect, and the UC/CSU event. I went into them a bit blindly, assuming that I’d make friends who could help get me oriented and help me figure out what I needed to know to get the most out of them.

That approach was fine for conferences of that scale, from about 200 up to about 800 people, maybe even more on a good WACAC year. But there was no comparison for this first time at NACAC in San Diego a couple of weeks ago. It would have served me well to do a bit more recon before blithely wandering into convention center with 7100+ people from across the country and overseas. If HECA and/or IECA would consider supplying a survival guide to members, perhaps this post might serve as an outline.

  1. Find a veteran, like-minded, NACAC-going IEC buddy and connect ahead of time to ask what his or her plan is. That’s the easiest, clearest piece of advice to any newbie. I will certainly do that for my next NACAC, which probably won’t be for a while. (I’m still thankful for having run into Laurie Kiguchi my first afternoon while drifting through the exhibition hall in total bewilderment.)

  3. Don’t expect a particularly IEC-friendly environment. While I understand that things have shifted gradually over the past few years, I certainly had a few unsavory run-ins with people whose impression of me was obviously affected by the sight of my purple badge. Evidently, too, there was a whole “badge gate” hoopla, too: a coalition of IECs had requested to be identified in the same pool of red-badge-wearing school counselors, as they had been at the Super ACAC meeting in Reno. Supposedly, that worked out just fine. Discouragingly, the motion was rumored to have been killed somewhere in the upper echelons of NACAC leadership, behind closed doors. It’s an injustice and a travesty, really, to do that in the face of so many people coming out to connect, to be a part of the conversation, and to align themselves with the standards of this organization.

  5. Don’t push yourself to attend sessions during every breakout slot. I ran from session to session the first couple of days and found little that felt geared toward my day-to-day experience. (I had to leave Saturday morning, though, and that day’s programming seemed more promising.) NACAC is very dedicated to school counselors’ practices and moving toward equal access to higher education in those settings; perhaps I missed it, but I’d love for someone to host a session on how best integrate the time that many IECs set aside for pro bono work to include them in that conversation.

  7. Instead, networking and/or reconnecting is the priority. I wish I’d known about all those receptions ahead of time so I could have registered and mapped out where I was going and why. I wish that I’d been more proactive about getting coffee with colleagues from WACAC, HECA and IECA during the day. Be ready to have fun…people come to this thing ready to party. Don’t count on a lot of sleep.

  9. Plan out your priorities for the college fair. The college fair is chaos…it’s just so big. Think about your current students first and the schools they’re interested in, and connect with those reps. Then think about other schools that have come up in conversations with students and/or others that you’re generally curious about, and make those your next-tier priorities. Elite schools might not be worth the effort—that was actually where I encountered the most overt purple-badge hostility. Make the connections and get the info that best serves your practice now.