Finding Community Through ACPA23 by Laura Vaughn
Description: If you are curious about what ACPA 2023 at New Orleans was like, read what Laura Vaughn’s blog post. She is a first time ACPA attendee and talks about the conference sessions, the environment, and the community she found.
While I have been to several conferences and have visited New Orleans many times for work and fun, ACPA23 was a breath of fresh air for my personal development. My biggest takeaway from the ACPA23 experience was a sense of belonging and community within higher education. I’ve worked in higher education for around 10 years, but this was my first time attending the ACPA annual conference. While I had heard about ACPA and the conference various times over my career, it was viewed as only somewhat relevant to international education professionals. That impression could not be further from the truth. Instead of ACPA, focus within my workplaces was always given to NAFSA and other similar conferences. While NAFSA national and regional conferences are great resources, my experiences at ACPA provided a different type of professional fulfillment. I am currently a second-year Ph.D. student studying higher education, and one of my classmates encouraged me to join ACPA and get involved in a commission last year. I am thankful to have followed my classmate’s advice because everyone I have met within the ACPA Commission for Global Dimensions of Student Development (CGDSD) has been welcoming and passionate when it comes to merging research and practice, which can sometimes be missing in conferences that are entirely focused on one or the other.
While there were many beautiful sessions during ACPA23, some common overall themes followed my experience at the conference. The first central theme was the feeling of belonging. ACPA is exceptionally open and welcoming to people who come as they are, not just professionals. Most conferences I have attended have been relatively formal, with the expectations of suits and business wear. However, when I stepped into ACPA23, there was a wide range of clothing styles spanning from suits to business casual to jeans. This immediately set a tone for my experience where you did not have to pretend to be someone you weren’t to make a good impression. You were welcome to attend the conference in a way that made you the most comfortable. The various accepted sessions and the setup of a writing room and introvert spaces also showed an openness to the inclusivity of different people and viewpoints. While conferences are usually promoted as ways to network, ACPA has arranged it so that it was okay if you missed some sessions or events because you needed a break. Mental health was not only talked about but actively featured as something to prioritize during the conference.
The second major theme I saw was the merging of theory and practice. Other conferences I have attended will often focus on one or the other, but ACPA combined the two in a revitalizing way. I have been an international education practitioner for many years but I needed more theoretical foundations and methods to apply research to my work. That is why I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in the first place. At ACPA, I found other professionals involved in combining research and practice. I made amazing connections with others with the same passion for international education research that I do, and we made plans to collaborate. These connections had revitalized my passion for research during a time when I needed clarification on my research focus. Connecting with similarly-minded researchers and practitioners was truly a validating experience. I left the conference with a newfound appreciation for how theory and research can be actively used within higher education practices.
The final major theme I observed was community. The CGDSD community has been amazing to work with over the past year, and I am very grateful to be a part of such an active and committee group of professionals. Getting to meet the members of the commission for the first time in person might seem like it would be intimidating, but it was actually like meeting old friends. Our shared passion and understanding of international education was a very special experience for me. While I have found my place within the CGDSD, other commissions within ACPA are just as welcoming of new people taking part in their communities. I attended the open meeting of a different commission without knowing anyone involved and found myself having deep conversations about topics important to me and making some amazing connections. While only some sessions were perfect, and not everyone will be your new best friend, the overall feeling of community within ACPA23 gave me hope for the future of higher education during a time when things sometimes seem like they will go well in our field.
ACPA23 was an amazing experience and probably the best time ever at a professional conference. I had deep conversations with amazing people in higher education and had several takeaways from meetings and sessions that I hope to implement in my future work and research. So whether it’s your first or 80th conference, ACPA’s annual conference is worth attending!