Conference – Day 1: Inspiration

I am currently in Philadelphia, attending the annual conference of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA). The theme of this year’s conference, stemming from our location in this city of our nation’s birth, is “Educating for Lives of Purpose”. I have to admit that, more than twenty years into my professional career in Student Affairs, I can be a bit cynical about meaningful titles and conferences which suggest there might be things seasoned professionals can learn from the programs being offered. Tonight’s opening session, though, may have set the tone for a transformative experience I wasn’t anticipating.

The opening session of professional conferences can be…well, boring. You hear from numerous speakers who congratulate themselves and thank everyone under the sun, give “updates” and “housekeeping notes”. And when that is done, your keynote address is from someone who might be marginally entertaining but, let’s face it, rarely actually knows anything about student affairs. Not tonight.

We began with the theme song to Rocky, which as anyone who reads my blog knows, has personal significance for me beyond the movie. The conference chair gave a gracious welcome, which was succinct and minimalist (as these things go). The NASPA President, Elizabeth Griego, from University of the Pacific, gave a stirring speech on the theme, “We are the people we have been waiting for”. She called us to personally creative leadership, lives and work of purpose, and to ask ourselves whether what we are doing is clear, focused, intentional, and systematic enough to bring about real transformation in the lives of our students and in the communities our institutions are part of.

The featured presenter for the evening was Donna Shalala, President of The University of Miami (and well-remembered as the Secretary of Health and Human Services for eight years under President Clinton). President Shalala made a few brief remarks about her career. She was engaging to listen to, and it is clear that she not only understands the student affairs profession, but sees it as essential to the work of colleges and universities.

President Shalala’s remarks were, however, brief. The majority of her session was devoted to a panel (which she moderated) of recent college graduates who are engaging in lives of purpose through community service: the Peace Corps, Teach for America, City Year, and the Clinton Global Initiative University. These young people were amazing – articulate, thoughtful, bright. And they were challenged, supported, and mentored by student affairs colleagues at each of their respective institutions. As a young woman named Sajena Erazo said, “I pour myself into my students to make them better than I was at their age. And I realize that is what you did for me when I was a student.”

Before the panel, as a way of introducing the panelists and the organizations they are working with, we watched a video. I wrote down one set of words which flashed by on the screen: raise money, raise hope, raise the bar. And while I don’t do a lot of fundraising associated with my career (except for a current pledge drive raising money throughout Lent for Kids Against Hunger), I do believe in the very real possibility of both raising hope and raising the bar in my work. And I am ready to ask myself, as President Griego suggested, “What does it mean to me to live with purpose?” Hopefully, the rest of the conference will also inspire me to ask myself this difficult question. To challenge myself to be the person I have been waiting for.

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