31 August 2011

We Were All First Timers Once

I have a million things that I need to be doing right now, so of course I decided that now was a good time to catch up on my blog reading.  After skimming and reading through over 500 postings, one theme seemed to keep popping up - new bloggers who are also new to conference-going and while excited about attending, most are questioning whether they will fit in.  Maybe if we all shared our first time at a conference, it will make others less nervous. 

My first conference was an experience I'll never forget.  In 2006 I decided to attend my first conference.  I had just finished 2 years of Family History Studies at Monterey Peninsula College and felt I was ready for action.  

The Conference:  BYU's Conference on Family History & Genealogy
The Place:  Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah
Where I Stayed:  In the BYU dorms ON CAMPUS
Length of Conference : 5 days

Picture if you will - ME, a cigarette smoker, coffee guzzler,  and notorious for using swear words at inappropriate times attending a conference where about a 95% of the attendees and speakers are Mormon.  Heap on the fact that I  stayed in the dorms of a Mormon university.  Then top it off with I did not know one single person with the exception of my instructor from the above mentioned coursework.  The cherry on the very top was that my wardrobe did not include anything that covered my body down past my knees nor over my shoulders.

I'll give you a few minutes here to soak that image in and then to stop laughing. 

Looking back at it now, I am not sure where I got the nerve to attend such a large venue all by myself on my first time out the gate. Before the day was even half over, I wanted to go home.  Salvation came in the form of a most excellent roommate.  We had been paired up by the staff and had never met each other before.  She came into the dorm room and found me in tears.  I explained that while I had been allowed (albeit grudgingly) into the conference center with my attire, I had been turned away at the BYU Library and the BYU cafeteria. It was the end of July and 100 degrees, what was I supposed to wear? I felt really out of place.  I needed caffeine and a smoke, heck even the soft drink machines on campus were caffeine-free.  I had flown in and had no way to even leave campus.  I then thought with horror - was the entire city of Provo caffeine and smoke free?

My roommate just smiled and then explained to me about the dress code on campus and as guests we were expected to adhere to it.  She then drove me off campus to buy some instant coffee and a mug to keep in our room.  By the time we returned, there were appropriate clothes hanging on the door to our room. That instructor I mentioned earlier?  She had heard about my difficult day and had brought me clothes from her own closet.  Thank you Karen Clifford.  My roommate then told me that 25 years ago she was a student at BYU and the dorm we were in was the same one she lived in.  She showed me how to get on to the roof of the building where I could sneak a cigarette.  She never told me how she obtained this knowledge and I never asked.  I made it through the rest of the conference, I learned so much and made some new friends.

So here is what I think needs to be done for first-timers:

1.  To the conference planners:  Do not assume that everyone attending has been to your venue before and already knows the ropes.  Jamboree 2011 had a session devoted to the first timer.  The orientation showed how to get the most out of the 3 days.  It even showed people where the bathrooms were located!  

2.  There should be a type of "Buddy" system available for the first-timer, especially if they are attending alone.

3.  Nobody should have to eat alone.  If you are at a conference and see an obvious first-timer eating alone, invite him/her to join you and/or your group.  

We were all first-timers once.  Come on people, pony-up and spill your guts.  It's cheaper than therapy and you'll probably encourage someone to attend a conference.  Win-Win.

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