It’s Okay to Cry: Planning a National Conference

Almost two years ago, I was a new Resident Director at Santa Clara University and hoping to branch out both personally and professionally. I missed cross-departmental collaboration I experienced at my previous job and was hoping to make connections throughout the division. Therefore, when I heard that Santa Clara had won the bid to host the 2013 National Jesuit Student Leadership Conference, I immediately contacted one of the co-advisors and told her I would be happy to help. Be careful what you ask for!

Fast forward four months and during a one-on-one with my supervisor, she casually brings up that I have been tapped by our VPSA to take the place of one co-advisor who recently took on a new position at the University. I was honored, stunned and jumped at the chance. Little did I know how much work was waiting for me based on that casual acceptance.

Meetings started, the student committee was assembled and plans were in place to attend the 2012 conference at the College of the Holy Cross in Worchester, MA. Only a few weeks before the conference, my co-advisor and new friend called to let me know she had taken a new job at Stanford and was not attending the 2012 conference, nor would she be a part of the planing process.

The past year has been a flurry of meetings, more meetings, phone conferences, e-mails, Google docs, frustration, and yes, even tears. We wrapped up our conference on June 30th and here’s what I’ve learned along the way:

Make sure expectations are clear: Tedd, my co-advisor and I, had a meeting with our VPSA and she straight up told us this was not one of those typical advisory roles. This was not an RHA event where a student planner forgot something or it started late, that it could be explained as a “learning experience” or “room for growth.” Not to be dramatic, but failure was not an option. Over 300 people from the 27 other Jesuit universities would be descending on our campus and we had to be ready. If the student committee was slacking, then it was up to us to figure it out.

Communicate up and down the ladder and be your own best advocate: I had absolutely no clue how much time this would take from my full time job as an RD, with a community of 300 and 10 supervisees. I don’t think my supervisor did either so when she was deciding committee assignments, I needed to remind her that while NJSLC wasn’t a Residence Life committee, it should be counted as such as not to pile my plate too high.  It was also important to communicate with my supervisees about how much time this required and why I was out of the office more than usual. I’ve found that students can often feel abandoned, so it was vitally important that didn’t happen to my team.

Double your original budget and make that your fundraising goal: Money, money, money. Nothing good ever came from it and this planning process just confirmed this theory. Tedd and I had the misfortune of being passed on a two-year old budget that was unfortunately, completely out of date and woefully underfunded. Original transportation quote? $4,000 Current transportation quote? Nearly $10,000 There was a $7,500 technology fee from our Conference Services contract that was nowhere to be found in the original bid, but had to be covered in our current budget. It got to the point that I had a dream that we were $40,000 in the red (which actually happened around March) and our VPSA told me it was coming out of my wages until the debt was repaid to the University!

Prepare to leverage relationships and call in favors: I have never been someone who is good at asking for help, but this conference has thrown that out the window! Our Opening Keynote speaker? A former colleague and current friend from my last job. Our giveaway vendor is someone I met at a conference and since haggled down to nearly free prices on a variety of products. Our Community Based Learning (day of service) Advisor has had coffee or a meal with every single community partner to impress upon them the need for not only projects, but also placements for over 300 people! Relationships are important in any position, and more often than not, people are actually to help when asked so don’t be afraid to communicate your needs.

Everyone has an opinion, but not all of them will work: When dealing with a monster this size, it only goes to reason that there will be a lot of people involved. We have two student co-chairs (a sophomore and junior!), nine student committee chairs (seven of them were freshmen when they were chosen!), and 14 staff advisors, who council and meet with the student committee chairs to keep them on track. We have two people from a partnering institution. We have vendors, and keynote speakers, and 30 members of the community who are coming in for professional panels. This doesn’t even include the 300 delegates and advisors who have their own concepts about their conference experience. The point I’m trying to make is that all of these people have a variety of lenses, opinions, and amount of buy-in. Others have their individual piece, but you are the only one who knows what picture you are trying to create. This means you will often have to smile, nod your head, thank someone for their input and know there is no way you will go in that direction. It has proven helpful to explain the bigger picture as often as possible, but know it may come down to disappointing one to please the whole.

Things will happen you can’t predict. Your options are to crumble or adapt.  The second day of our conference I got a frantic call over the walkie-talkie that seven of our ten rooms were double-booked with a conference that was being sponsored by our University President. Did I feel like crying? Of course. But in that moment our student committee members were looking to me for support, strength and options. I got on the head-set, sent my co-advisor to deal with the rooms in question while I scrambled to find alternative arrangements. Later that night, our catering service failed to show up for a 40-person advisor reception and no one was answering their help line. Again, I felt like crying, but crying wouldn’t have helped our advisors feel any less hungry. I sent two of my incredible colleagues across the street to the grocery store, made sure to stock up on beer, and the advisors were happy as could be.

You will more proud of your team than you ever thought possible: Sitting in our residence hall lounge with my team, after a mere 22 hours of sleep over five nights, laughing until our stomachs hurts about the crazy requests or delegate shenanigans, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming swell of pride at what my team and yes, myself, had accomplished over the past year and a half. We welcomed 254 student delegates, 40 advisors, 11 committee members, and 10 volunteers all the way to California. We successfully sent all of these people into the wilds of San Francisco in the midst of Pride and all of them made it back. We found service placements for 300 people and provided reflective moments throughout the conference. We fundraised more than $50,000 and may possibly turn a profit that will be put towards scholarships for future delegates.

More than anything else, we did it. We planned and executed a national conference. We juggled a million moving pieces and it went off (more or less) without a hitch. Each one of us will always be able to reference this experience on our resumes and job interviews and life experiences, and that makes me well up for a totally different reason. In this regard, it is totally okay to cry.

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