The first time at a national NAFSA conference can be exhilarating and overwhelming. There are many different activities going on, all at the same time. It is unlikely you will find time to make it to everything. Prioritize! Plan ahead, creating a tentative schedule for each day. Decide on a few can't miss events. Determine your goals in advance of attendance. Are you trying to network for a new job? In search of program partnerships? Trying to find new approaches to an issue you are experiencing in the office? Figure out what you want to get out of the conference.
Here is an overview what typically occupies my time while at NAFSA:
Before the conference officially begins, NAFSA offers a series of 1-2 day workshops on a variety of topics (ex. advising, risk management, orientation, etc.). These are a great way to gain competency in a subject and an even better way to network. They involve lots of group work and roundtable discussions. Downside: they can be expensive, adding another $275-$400 to your conference fees.
If the workshops are the appetizer, sessions are the main course. Usually an hour in length, sessions highlight a hot topic, new research, or best practice. Because there are so many, they are organized by Knowledge Community. While you're most likely to find sessions under the Education Abroad theme, make sure to check the others. You might find good sessions elsewhere. If you have a time clash, don't be afraid to contact the presenter(s) after the conference via email to ask for more information. NAFSA now posts slides and handouts online afterwards.
Thanks the the attendance, NAFSA has money to invite big name plenary speakers from around the world. This year included author Malcolm Gladwell. Need I say more? They have one each day, usually around 4 pm. The plenary speakers give a talk on an issue related to international education. Try to attend at least one. They are usually very inspiring.
The Expo Hall keeps getting bigger and bigger. It's like a farmer's market for international education. Study abroad providers, agents, language schools, testing agencies, software companies... you name it-- they are advertising their services in the Expo Hall. While some attendees feel overwhelmed, or put off by the commercialism, I personally love the Expo. I say hello to existing vendors and try to branch out and speak to new people. Sometimes I use the Expo as a way to scope out companies I might want to work for one day. And, of course, they all give out swag like pens, bags, water bottles, etc. Don't go too overboard on those-- you have to find a way to drag it all home.
Ask a mid-career professional about NAFSA and you might hear a groan and complaint about meetings. While we have every intention of spending our days in sessions, what tends to happen is our days are filled with meetings. NAFSA is an international conference. Educators come from around the world. This provides the opportunity to pursue new exchange agreements, hash out any program issues, shop for a new study abroad partner, and just maintain existing relationships in a face-to-face setting. Most of the people we work with we never meet face-to-face because of the distance. NAFSA gives us the chance to see who is taking care of our students while they are abroad.
Let's be honest, my favorite part of NAFSA would have to be the receptions. Yummy appetizers, good beer/wine/cocktails (open bar, folks), and honest conversation with friends -- new and old. Receptions are sponsored by different countries (universities pool their resources to host exchange partners), study abroad providers, and international education organizations. This is where real relationship-building takes place. You will need to be invited. Some are notoriously difficult to score an invite. Others have a reputation for great venues, entertainment, or late night dance parties (Brazil!). My all-time favorite was the Australian Universities reception (2005), held in the Seattle Space Needle, complete with Aussie wines and live didgeridoo. Networking in a circular room is so much more fun.
Word of caution on receptions: While there will be lots of alcohol and a few tipsy colleagues, it is 100% critical that you don't let down your guard too much or act unprofessional. The field is small and your behavior can burn you. So learn how to hold that glass of wine, plate of cheese, and exchange a business card properly.