Conference Totes: Our Very Own Invisible Knapsacks

This concept of “Conference Privilege” has really got me thinking. What does it actually take to be able to volunteer, present, engage, and contribute through the traditional methods of our field? I think most of us are familiar with Peggy McIntosh’s work on white privilege and “unpacking our Invisible Knapsack” of privilege. While I am admittedly nowhere close to Peggy’s level of insight, I submit to you a list of privileges needed to attend most of our student affairs conferences.

Important note: These privileges were shaped through my own lenses and identities, some of which I am part of the dominant group and some of which I am from the subordinate group. This is NOT meant to be all-inclusive and I welcome additions to the list as we can grow our conversation about what it means to be “involved” in student affairs. Please add your own in the comments!

Privileges Required to Attend a Professional Conference

  • Work at an institution that has professional development funding available or have enough disposable income to fund yourself.
  • Work at an institution that allows you to attend conferences and use your funding even if you are not on planning committees and/or presenting.
  • Have a supervisor that supports professional development in this method and will allow you to be away from campus for days at a time.
  • Have a supervisor who will allow more than one person from your department to attend at the same time. If not, have fun being the person who got to go, while others had to stay behind or the person that has to run the office while multiple colleagues are gone.
  • Actually be currently employed. If you are in between jobs, but still want to attend and contribute, how will it feel every time someone asks if there was a typo on your name badge because the institution line is blank? Or will people make their own assumptions (“Must have gotten fired!”) without ever approaching you?
  • Have a manageable amount of work so you aren’t completely and totally overwhelmed when you come back at the end of the conference. If you don’t have a manageable amount of work, bring with you your smart phone, tablet or laptop to keep up with e-mails and projects. These items are most likely not funded by your department, so have enough income to purchase and provide Internet service for all.
  • Let’s hope you don’t have social or psychological disabilities that can be triggered by travel, a disruption in your schedule, large groups of people, extensive walking, germs flying everywhere, auditory or visual overload, or a general sense of being overwhelmed.
  • If you are a person of size, hope the chairs in the sessions are far enough apart than you can be seated comfortably. Really, really hope the session doesn’t fill up because you may spend more of the session worried about inconveniencing your neighbors than you will about the content.
  • If you are a person of size, hope the sessions you are interested in are close together and travel isn’t required that will make you break a sweat, worry about body odor or being out of breath when you arrive at a session. Perhaps plan your conference experience less on content and more on comfort.
  • If you identify as a person of color, worry that you will be accused of clumping up with other colleagues of color during sessions or meals. “Why are all of the (fill in the identity) sitting together?” Know that White colleagues don’t realize they are usually surrounded by other White colleagues at most institutions, and this may be your only opportunity to connect with, and gain support from, colleagues who may have similiar challenges with their day-to-day work.
  • If you identify as a member of the LGBT-Q community, but are not out on your home campus, worry that your involvement with certain Commissions or Knowledge Communities could inadvertently out you. Worry that a picture posted on Instagram or Twitter at a Big Gay Dance, Cabaret or other social function could make it’s way back to your institution, and in the case of many religiously-affiliated institutions that require a statement of faith to be hired, this could be the cause of your termination. If you live in one of the 29 states where you can be fired for being gay or one of the 34 that allows for termination for being transgender, know you have no legal recourse.
  • If you identify as an Introvert, worry about not being able to connect with others in the same way as your Extrovert colleagues because at the end of the day, the last thing you want to do is make small talk at socials or fight for a table for dinner.
  • If you are in recovery from addiction, plan to avoid many of the after-hours offerings at conferences which inexplicably revolve around alcohol. This includes many institutional socials which can be an integral part of the hiring or interview progress.
  • If you identify as transgender, you may be hopeful that professional organizations will offer gender neutral bathrooms, but there are no guarantees for your safety or comfort during your travel experience or at the conference hotel, local restaurants or bars.
  • If you have children, let’s hope you have a supportive partner, family unit or enough money banked for childcare to be able to leave your child(ren) or bring along said partner, family member or caretaker.
  • If you are a nursing mother, hope the conference has space for nursing or pumping on an every 3-4 hour rotation. Hope your volunteer shift, committee meeting or presentation doesn’t conflict with your nursing/pumping schedule.
  • If you are single, but have a pet at home, hope you have a network of pet-sitters or the funds to board your pooch for a week at a time. This will cost between $30-40 a day, unless you need shots updated and then tack on another few hundred dollars.
  • If you are a person who doesn’t conform to the societal standard that you must be in a committed relationship in order to have sexual relations with another consenting adult, worry that you will be labeled as a “conference slut” by colleagues. Worry that this may make it’s way back to your institution and your professional reputation will be impacted. Nothing like a good dose of slut-shaming to grow our profession!
  • If you live in a rural part of the country, hope you can convince a partner, friend or colleague to make the 2-3+ hour (sometimes one-way!) trip to the closest airport. If you can’t find someone, hope you have enough money to leave your car in long-term parking.
  • Grad student? Hope you have been putting away money since the day you started to be able to afford flights, hotel rooms, meals, transportation, and in many cases, a new wardrobe. Haven’t even mentioned the conference registration yet!
  • If you are unable to afford such a shopping list, hope you have good enough credit to secure a line of small loans just to afford the conference experience. This doesn’t scratch the surface if you are job searching and asked to front the money for flights to on-campus interviews.
  • If you are an undergraduate student who is interested in the field and invited to attend great opportunities such as STARS College through ACUHO-I or NUFP through NASPA, let’s hope you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. If you are an undocumented student and the conference is beyond driving distance, then you can’t get on a plane since you don’t have proper documentation. To attempt to fly would mean you could potentially be deported. Even if the conference IS within driving distance, let’s hope it’s not in a state with laws like SB1070 when you can be pulled over for a simple traffic violation and be asked to prove your citizenship. Let’s not forget that NASPA was held in Arizona just a few years ago.
  • Courtesy of Stacy Oliver: If you haven’t had the capability to fly before, worry about pretty much every part of the process. How do I book a ticket? How do I check in? How do I go through security? What happens if I get pulled out of line by TSA? How do I find my gate? What happens if my flight is delayed or I get bumped? How do I find my luggage? How do I get to my hotel? The list goes on…

Perhaps the ultimate invisible knapsack in our field is the free bag we get when we register.

Please leave additional conference privileges in the comments section!


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