By Cokie Thompson
So much has changed in the last five years. I completed a master’s program. I started and left my first full-time job. I picked up and abandoned hobbies. I moved back to my college town. The pandemic, of course. Through all of it, ACPA Convention has been a way to mark time, a place to check in with myself and the world beyond me. It hasn’t always been the same, but it has always given me something I needed.
In my first year of my master’s program, I was shepherded into ACPA. Several of the second-year students had already started scheming about going to Convention when I showed up for assistantship training in July. Two of our faculty members were (and remain) long-time members, and they provided invaluable insight on the professional benefits of attending as well as tips and tricks for how to make it work on a graduate student budget. By the time we departed Tuscaloosa for Houston (at 3 a.m. on March 11, 2018, which was the first day of Convention, the first day of Daylight Saving Time, and the day after we all closed our residence halls for Spring Break), we were ready to dive in.
At that Convention, I wanted to do everything. Our professors had given us an overview of the wide variety of programming (presentations, socials, and speakers, oh my!) and encouraged us to try a little bit of everything. One friend wanted to hit up every possible social event in search of professional connections. Another was a Graduate Students and New Professionals Community of Practice Ambassador, so they had some meetings and casual hangs planned with those folks. Like a first year undergrad who wants to join every student org, I didn’t schedule lunches or really dinners. It was exhausting.
It was also life-changing. I went to presentations about all kinds of different things I either wasn’t previously exposed to or hadn’t engaged in. The land acknowledgements and sessions about serving Native students in particular helped me think about a population that my campus was doing basically nothing to acknowledge, much less serve. I also went to all the race caucuses. I didn’t have an ideal experience, but it was important and meaningful to me to have that kind of conversation for the first time.
After the travel nightmare that was the first day of our first Convention, my classmates and I made sure to give ourselves some down time on the first day in Boston the next year (2019). I was in the middle of job application season looking for a leadership or service job, so I prioritized Commision for Student Involvement events and endorsed programs. I ended up in a presentation by a fellow Alabama alumna a few years older than me, and we figured out we had been involved in a lot of the same programming there and had a lot of mutual friends. Again, I went to all the race caucuses. I had a great experience that year. I still think about comments that folks in that group made.
In Nashville (2020), I wasn’t so worried about making connections to get a job. I had one! A former classmate and I were presenting, so some time was built around that. I still went to as many sessions as I could, but I cut back on evening events. I was a volunteer for the CSI that year, but I may have even skipped the CSI social because my battery was just drained. I made time for dinner with a dear friend who lived in town. The big hug they gave me outside the restaurant was the last one I got from a loved one for fourteen months. And again, I went to all the race caucuses. My group that year had some tense conversations, particularly around when it was appropriate to remove someone from a campus community. I had a lovely moment with one of the other folks in that group that I thought about for weeks after, with some new perspective as I looked out my living room window after we had all been removed from campus.
I didn’t do online Convention in 2021. I just couldn’t.
Just a few weeks ago in St. Louis, I was all about the CSI. These are my people! I was the Interchange volunteer from 2019-2021 and the Vice Chair for Research and Assessment for 2021-2022, and our meetings and informal hangs carried me through the hardest days of working from home and returning to campus. I wanted to support them. I also wanted to make connections for the Interchange. If you went to a CSI event, you probably heard me give my pitch. (I still want to hear your story!) I volunteered as a notetaker for the TCCU/HSI/HBCU Career Conversation, an opportunity that was a gift for me and the Association. I hope we take action to support these institutions and the people who run them. I think the only other non-CSI session I went to was a research paper session facilitated by a former professor of mine. We’re no longer at the same institution, and it was a joy to connect in that space. I went to the opening session (which I would have done anyway, but I was extra excited to hear from Dr. Steve D. Mobley, Jr., who I was lucky enough to learn with in several graduate courses), but missed the closing session because an airline doesn’t want me to be great.
This year I had a very different experience. I was focused on supporting people I know rather than looking for support from new people. I prioritized sitting down to eat a hot meal even though that usually meant missing something. I began to think about what my long(er) term future might look like in my full-time job and in ACPA. I realized there are lots of options and no right or wrong answers.
When I started as the Interchange volunteer, just like when I went to my first Convention, I thought there was a Way It Was Supposed to Be. There is not! The beauty of Convention is that there are so many ways to engage. The Interchange is focused on the CSI, but other than that, it can be whatever we want. I want to share the inside baseball stories about programming successes and lessons in how not to make lightbulbs, but I also want it to be a place where we see other parts of ourselves. Amos Davidson and Nneka Walson have written beautiful pieces this year about their relationships with work. I want more of that. Leadership and service programming is my jam, but I want to make sure we have plenty of content for our fraternity and sorority life and activities and organizations folks as well. I know many of our functional areas have lots of other associations and networks to engage in professionally. We don’t need to replicate those, but I do want to have another place for y’all here.
If you need to hear or say something about our work, I hope the Interchange can make that happen. Send me an email and let’s get started.
Cokie Thompson is the Vice Chair for Research and Assessment for the Commission for Student Involvement. She lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she is the Assistant Director of the Blackburn Institute at the University of Alabama.