You Just Had to be There (ACPA 2015 Annual Convention)

By: Ray Burgman, Director of HERS Institutes

Whenever I take an exceptional vacation, I never have the right words to express how great it was. I say, “You had to be there.” These days I say the same thing about the occasional staycation. Though not a vacation or a staycation, I wish everyone in higher education attended the 2015 ACPA (American College Personnel Association) conference in Tampa, FL because several months later I still feel the same way.  The amazing projects and initiatives happening across the country to support student success, and those presented at ACPA, left me speechless.

This excites me as a former faculty member. Student learning was one of my principal concerns and student development was in everything I did. Spending time with student affairs colleagues was delightful yet agonizing. Their jobs seemed fun and rewarding while mine seemed somewhat exciting and slightly depressing. How many ways can you explain supply and demand? Surprisingly, quite a few! For me, student development was never solely an academic pursuit. There are student educators on every campus office.

Bridges and a few metaphorical moats exist on every campus. Students traverse these planes with ease and do not see the barriers we erect. As an undergraduate student at New College of Florida, I lived on one side of campus and walked across a bridge to attend classes on the other side of campus. Yes, there is a place where a bridge really separates academic affairs and student affairs. I never thought about the split. When I returned to the campus as an administrator, I thought about it constantly. Former colleague Wendy Bashant, UC-San Diego Thurgood Marshall College Dean of Student Affairs, left me with a bizarre but nevertheless truthful vision of the division. Students are neither brains with only feet nor headless bodies drifting around campus. Students are whole people who deserve a whole education. The office name and org chart titles are rather irrelevant when it comes to student development.

This is what I enjoyed about the ACPA conference. I felt whole and had the sense that social justice – equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities for everyone – mattered more than what I do or once did. The sessions were inclusive and relevant. I dropped in on a session about saving and investing for student affairs personnel, which mirrored the TIAA-CREF staffed sessions we hold at the HERS Institutes. I attended executive coaching and career mapping sessions, at which I had the pleasure of meeting several HERS alumnae. I rejoiced in a wonderfully powerful session on storytelling for women of color (see my next blog post for more on storytelling).

From the very beginning, with a blessing from the Seminole tribe, to the very end, the ACPA conference felt like the chaise lounge in my apartment, comfortable for one but with enough space for two. There was something about this conference and the organization that said we have room for everyone, no matter the identity or affinity.

As a first time ACPA conference attendee and presenter, I was Twitter-tastic because there was so much I wanted to share with others, including details from the impressive panels, presentations, and labs—especially PechaKucha.  I have new friends, collaborators, and peer mentors. Though there were many new people, some comments were sweet music to my ears. I met HERS alumnae who said the HERS experience has been pivotal in their personal and professional journeys.   Hearing this affirmed why HERS still exists 43 years later. Mission statements mean nothing without an action plan and ACPA showed me what social justice means.

This post is a nod to the conference organizers and the many thousands who have served and supported ACPA. Finding a warm, open community of student educators is a treat I never expected at this stage of my career. All I can say is that you just had to be there! #ACPA16