Throughout my career, I have insisted that staff members not only attend professional conferences, but also get involved in organizations related to their career paths. To develop more fully as a professional, I firmly believe that you need to get out of the office, away from your daily routine, and join a regional or national association.
The benefits are far-reaching. First, you are exposed to current best practices and cutting-edge innovations from some of the best minds in the profession. Without this exposure, organizations and individuals become stagnant and regressive. At the very least, they remain in a constant state of “catching up.” I have seen it happen. As technology advances and student affairs practices evolve, it is generally the professional associations that are able to coalesce these changes and then present them to the practitioners in the trenches.
A second benefit to becoming active in a professional association is gaining access to a powerful network of like-minded individuals. How many of us have friends in our field that we see only two or three times a year at professional conferences or meetings? And how many of us consider these friends as some of our best friends, despite the infrequency of our in-person contact? These friends become part of our LinkedIn network; they are our personal career advisors. They become our vacation companions, and our shoulders to cry on in times of need. They are our references on job searches, and the people we immediately seek out to share life events. They are often closer to us than the people we see every day. Sometimes they even become our significant other. Would any of this be possible if we stay cloistered on campus?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, professional involvement is key to our own leadership development and, ultimately, career advancement. As altruistic, external-facing, student-centered professionals, we too often concentrate on developing leadership skills in our students and staff, at the expense of our own needs. My volunteer involvement has fulfilled those needs for me on many different levels. Being involved in NACA and interacting with agents and performers early in my student activities career allowed me to overcome shyness, speak confidently in public, write clearly and objectively, and generally organize people and projects more effectively. As my career progressed, and I became more involved in the Association of College Unions International (ACUI), I learned about managing multimillion-dollar budgets, planning more strategically, obtaining consensus, thinking for an association of institutions and not only for a single campus, and facing conflict with civility and swift decision making. As a member of the board of trustees and then as the president of ACUI, which I consider the pinnacle of my professional involvement activities, I was exposed to a deeper level of leadership, a behind-the-scenes, in-depth governing opportunity that made me more confident, exposed me to national issues and leaders, and required that I quickly get input on fast-moving situations and react appropriately without a lot of process time. Applying the skills and insights gained through these volunteer activities to my “day job” has been instrumental in my success and ongoing development as a leader and professional. Had I been passive and inactive, I believe my career path could never have brought me the success and joy I have experienced so far. It is our duty to ourselves and to those for whom we are responsible to ensure that we do not become student affairs hermits and waste the opportunity to develop critical skills.
The leadership opportunities and skills I have developed correlate with the depth and breadth of the volunteer experiences I have undertaken—sometimes at great inconvenience to my family and my non-work activities. The benefits, though, far outweigh the drawbacks. As you seek to advance your career and pursue new prospects, whether a promotion or a complete shift in profession, consider the leadership opportunities that come from actively volunteering with professional associations. You don’t have to be the president, or even a member of the board of directors—just get involved!