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.


  1. Oh Sheri....you painted the picture of your experiences so perfectly! As always, you make me smile! So glad you had a wonderful roommate to help you get through the conference.

  2. very funny post Sheri, and yet I felt your pain, no one likes to feel left out. We can all be a little more aware of those around us and show some empathy.

  3. That is a great story, I could feel your angst. I have never been to a major conference myself dealing with genealogy but have been to Nursing Conferences. So at least I have an idea what to wear, plus the room are so cold I need to coverup...

  4. Having gotten to know you Sheri, and being a BYU graduate myself, I am now wiping the tears of laughter from my eyes.

    - Bruce

  5. Excellent post - attending a conference alone where most attendees know each other is hard! Been there, done that - also had to find a caffeine source, my venue was Salt Lake City. I aecond your comments about a buddy system as well as a "get the lay of the land" meeting for newcomers. Anyone going to a conference in the near (and far) future - look for newbies and be welcoming - add them to your clique.
    Thanks again for sharing and reminding us to pay it forward.

  6. If I ever manage to get to a conference (guess I better win that lottery!) - I want you for a room mate! We'd get along perfectly & we'd both be sneaking up to roof tops!

  7. Funny post Sheri! Loved it! FGS2011 is my first time at a large conference and I'm so excited. Going alone but "know" so many people from the blogs and Twitter that I already have plans to meet some of them Tuesday and Wednesday morning. It will be great. I'll be on the lookout for first-timers who need a friend though. I have no lunch plans Wednesday so maybe I'll make a new friend. :)

  8. Great post, as always, Sheri! While not a first-timer at the last conference I attended alone, I volunteered as a room monitor for some sessions. The "job" was a no brainer. I felt useful and made lots of genealogy friends.

  9. Great article. My first conference wasn't quite so bad. I didn't have anyone to eat with all week (including my roommate) and it was before they started using the "first timer" ribbons. Those ribbons make a difference.

    The conference web sites/mailing lists usually suggest attire, so I'm surprised that BYU, with it's more strict dress code, didn't explain that for you beforehand.

    But most genealogists are friendly people and I'm glad it worked out for you.

  10. Sheri,

    Thank you for a great post. In 2010 I went to Jamboree, knowing no one. I was SOOOOO lucky to meet Amy Coffin the first night I was in the hotel. The next night I was introduced to a blog (never heard of one before) and discovered that I was actually mentioned in one of Amy's post.

    I'm new at blogging, so even this part of the conference is a little "scary" for me, but I hope that all of us remember your post and our feelings the first time we attended ANY meeting and didn't know anyone. Thanks again for the reminder.

  11. Great advice, Sheri, and I was at that first timer meeting at Jamboree 2011, too. No one let me eat alone all weekend, and everyone went out of their way to be helpful and friendly. Most genealogists are, by nature, generous and gregarious! The Blogger Island was a great place to hangout as a newbie, and I hope to see it at more conferences!

  12. Wow. Just Wow. I guess my "Spidey" senses were on target for this topic.

    Dorene - YOU make me smile!

    Lynn - Funny and painful - I think that is called sadistic or something like that - anyway that will cost you extra id that's what you got out of it LOL

    Bruce - Ha! I finally got you to laugh!

    Wendy - will you also hangout in the parking lot with me to smoke like all the bad girls do?

    Banai - Well maybe they never had a Catholic girl from California as a guest for this event. I did suggest to them that in the future they need to clearly spell out the dress code for visitors who want to stay on campus.

    Claudia, Tessa, Deborah & Karen - I'd be your buddy anytime though you may want to reconsider being mine as I am prone to wearing a parrot on my head at conferences.

  13. OK Heather you are not a new kid anymore - Go forth a be-buddy someone! I am so glad I got to finally meet you at Jamboree last June!

  14. Sheri your story was great. You are awesome to share it. I have yet to attend a conference but I think I may try to make some connections beforehand if I do. Bloggers are a friendly group. thanks for the entertaining story. Diane

  15. What the others said: your story was great. I may have written one of those "first conference" blogs you mentioned, as I blogged about my first two conferences at the beginning of this month.
    I didn't go alone, and I met with lots of help, but I can sympathize with your first situation.
    Thank you for this post, and for calling the situation to our attention. As others said, genealogists are usually helpful, friendly folk. But also we FOCUS. Thanks for reminding us to focus also on the beginner. After all, we're delving in the past for the benefit of present and future people, aren't we. So remember to help the present beginner.

  16. My first big conference was FGS 2010. I don't know what I would have done without Thomas MacEntee and the other genea-bloggers. (I still have to rely meeting up with "the gang" since I don't do Twitter and have a "dumb phone").

  17. Motha,

    When you got to the line about taking a minute until you stop laughing....I was laughing out loud. You were born that way, baby! And for MY very first genealogy conference, I was lucky to have YOU as my roomie. Everyone at home said, "But you never even met her!". But I knew you through blogs and emails and Facebook. You were a great person to introduce me to the joys of conferencing. And the joys of laughing until my drink came out my nose.