How to Make the Best of Your SWE Conference Experience

I’ll be honest right up front, when I first joined SWE, I only did it for the travel opportunities. After putting in the time and work, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to attend three annual conferences, the most recent to in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and am preparing for the last Region B Conference in Orange County, California. I was even on a conference planning committee once. Now that I can count on two hands the number of conferences I’ve attended in my short five year undergraduate tenure, I’ve learned a lot about what to expect and how to prepare in order to get the most out of a perspective conference. They can seem overwhelming, but can also be underestimated, so I find it’s nice to go in with an action plan. Here are my thoughts on how to make the most out of a not just a SWE conference, but any kind of conference.

Pre-Departure Preparation: You’re going to your first SWE conference! Sweet beans! But, what even happens at these conferences? SWE conferences have a little bit of something for everyone and because it can be a lot to take in (especially at annual conference) just expect to not see everything. There are sessions for students, professionals, industry, the LGBT community, ethnic minorities, and the bigger the conference, the more there is for a more diverse group. Something I’ve found that helps me prepare for a conference is to come up with a couple of “conference goals.” I went to a biomedical engineering conference in Minneapolis last year and I was so overwhelmed with all the sessions, panels, and poster sessions on topics from biomedical devices to regenerative medicine amongst experts in their field and freaky smart people that I spent too much time out in the lobby goofing off on my phone. What I should have done before leaving was coming up with a general idea of what I wanted to learn from this conference. How was I going to be better student/professional/interviewee/person when I got on the flight home?
Example: Let’s say I’m going to a SWE conference as a senior in college and am concerned about being a working mother in industry after graduation. An appropriate conference goal would be to become educated on what’s been done before. In order to accomplish this goal, I look through the conference app and search for industry panels that concentrate on being a working mother or workshops by industry leaders that tell their story as a female professional engineer. Another concern I have is I found it incredibly annoying when my professor embarrassed me in front of the class because a question I asked wasn’t good enough for him (Yes, him. Either he’s a jerk or a sexist jerk). An appropriate goal, with this in mind, would be to discover strategies to handle unintended gender bias situations like this in a professional manner. I search the app for gender inequality sessions, or jumping the gender gap workshops. I promise you, EVERY woman in a STEM field will have a similar experience whether it’s unintended/intended gender bias or the interrupting man, so maybe I plan on going to a networking event at the conference to connect with women who have “been there, done that.”

 

Morning of the First Day: You are full of energy this day, so plan to do things that are most important to you. Scroll through the app again and plan to go to sessions that look interesting to you. You’ve already set aside sessions to accomplish your goals, so try something else too. You won’t go to all of them, but then you have a plan for the next couple of days and you might learn something you didn’t expect. You feel awesome today, so dress like it too. Wear your pumps because your feet are going to hurt tomorrow and you won’t want to wear them again. Bring your conference tote with some resumes, a pen and paper, and a can-do attitude and prepare to conquer the world!

At the Conference: Be a sponge, absorb anything and everything. Annual conference has a lot to offer including the ginormous career fair (be prepared to stand in some lines. I stood in line for 45 minutes for a five minute conversation with a company rep in Philly), mega sessions, luncheons, hospitality suites, panels, awards dinners, ribbons to adorn your nametag, the SWE Boutique (bring some cash. USU has ∫exp(xy) shirts!), and many more that I can’t remember right now. Dude, the world is your oyster! Hit those sessions and buy a shirt from the boutique. Own it girl!

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Look at how bright and shiny they are! First day energy peeps.

Nights: I’m the type that likes to explore the city I’m in and your experience will be enhanced if you take in some local culture. Philly was easy since the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall were only a couple of blocks away, but other places may be harder to enjoy. Just go on a walk down the street and see what you can find. You may end up with a sweet new tattoo or husband (this is a joke. Nina says don’t get a tattoo or married while at SWE conference).

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Still can’t get over that Philly Cheese steak or that hair.

Nearing the End: Yo, you’re tired. Hang on! There’s still stuff to see the last day! You’re probably just wearing jeans and kicks at this point with your painful heels kicked in a corner in your hotel room. Still go to the conference, even if it’s only for one session.

USU SWE’s conference experience was a good one, and you can tell by how we all look in the following photo. We’re still gorgeous enough to attend the Academy Awards in this photo, but you can tell we’re exhausted. That’s the sign of a good conference. Go home exhausted.

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Utah State University SWE Section Annual Conference Attendees, Philadelphia, PA

Post Conference Follow Up: You went to this awesome conference, so share what you learned with your section. Whether it’s an officer meeting or general meeting, have people who attended talk about what they learned and how they are going to implement what they learned into their leadership role, education, profession, or lifestyle. Follow up is really important, so don’t forget it! It would also be wise to have someone (ie president or historian) write up an event evaluation that lists how arrangements were made, things that went well, things that didn’t go well, and what can be improved next time.

To sum up, don’t go to a conference empty handed. Go with a plan. Set conference goals, try something new, harness that first day energy, work hard by day, play hard by night, push through to the end, and always always always follow up once you’re home. With my goals and plans, I now feel better about having a family while working and found support from experienced women on dealing with my jerk professor (he didn’t get a nice evaluation). If there is one thing that I could say about making a great conference experience, I’d say have fun your way. Make it worth the time and effort in raising funds and don’t forget to make friends since that can be hard for us.

~Katie G

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