Conferences are a huge struggle for me. So much I am an introvert that I am an independent consultant with my own firm, and my office is located in my basement. The last conference I attended I met with somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 of my professional colleagues. My “best friends,” I sometimes say. Any relief and respite while I was there was possible only because I stayed with a friend in her home instead of the conference hotel. Getting out of my basement for big conferences is a struggle for an introvert, no matter how valuable they are.
If I can get past the interpersonal struggle, I have to justify the massive (for me) financial expenditure. As an independent consultant with my own, small firm my travel and professional development budgets come right out of my own pocket. It can cost an easy $2,000 to pay for conference registration, hotel, airfare, and expenses. I have no one to reimburse me except for me. For this reason, ethically, I can only justify a conference if I can, in my mind, justify it to my clients.
Despite the depth of my difficulty justifying conferences, somehow I was talked into attending not one, but two, conferences this month. The first conference was in early November, with the International Association of Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement (IARSLCE). The second was last week with the Association of Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA).
I work from the philosophy that you get out of things what it is that you put into them, so despite my hesitations I knew both conferences would be productive. Even while it meant being away from my desk for an extended period for the second time in three weeks, the ARNOVA conference was especially valuable. I have been a member for many years to stay abreast of the current research in the field, and to connect with my colleagues – my best friends professionally speaking.
Over the last several years I have made some real connections with a number of colleagues who, like me, study nonprofits and voluntary civic participation, who are also members of ARNOVA. We come from different institutions, and by now we no longer live on the same coast. It was so exciting to renew connections with my old friends and see the progress of their work. I even had the privilege of sharing a presentation session with one of my colleagues who is now on faculty in Pennsylvania. I also had the privilege of sharing our presentation session with a new colleague who has only recently finished his doctoral work, and is just into his first semester on faculty in Texas. I am eager to see their articles in print in our association’s research journal.
As much as it was important to connect with my colleagues, meet new ones, and peruse the latest research, the most valuable part of the ARNOVA conference, and IARSLCE as well, was the opportunity to reconnect with myself. Inasmuch as I am a devoted introvert, I must be careful that I do not become isolated and disconnected from my work, or from the reasons I do the work that I do. As an independent contractor my professional colleagues from ARNOVA, IARSLCE, and other associations are my co-workers. They provide me with context and a frame of reference. Even when I work on projects independently, I am not alone in my work. Scholarship is possible because of my many colleagues, because of our many mentors who have gone before us, and because of their many mentors who preceded them.
These conferences have helped me check the calibration of my internal compass. I am still a scholar. I still love my discipline. I still love my field. I still work to build and disseminate knowledge for the public good. These opportunities with some 700 of my best friends have cleared the cloudy skies and I can see the needle and magnet still align with the stars. North is still north.