by Dr. Maria LaFrance
College of Behavioral Sciences
Argosy University, Online Programs
I was in my senior year of my undergraduate degree, just about to graduate with my bachelor’s degree in psychology, and the American Psychological Association (APA) annual convention was coming to Chicago- a mere 30 minute drive from school. The speakers and workshops were going to be excellent; there was something every day that I wanted to see, listen to, or learn about.
There was only one problem- I was broke, and student registration for the whole week was nearly $100. There was no way I could (monetarily) afford to go, but there was also no way that I could (educationally or professionally) afford not to go. That was when my mentor recommended volunteering.
Many professional conferences need volunteers (often students) to help run the conference. From being a page for a seminar room (getting water for speakers, finding batteries when the laser pointer dies, etc.) to helping the attendees with disabilities navigate the convention, to being a general question answerer with maps and information, there are a lot of different ways that students can help out during a conference.
During this particular APA convention, I volunteered in the Resources Room where convention attendees with disabilities came if they needed assistance. For one day, I was assigned as the assistant to a blind attendee, Phyllis. This was a HUGE responsibility, because in Chicago the convention was not held at one venue, but rather different events were held in the meeting rooms of hotels scattered across the downtown area. Not only did I have to help Phyllis get from room to room within the venues, but I also had to help her navigate the busy streets of Chicago to move from hotel to hotel, hitting all of the talks and events on her list. After my day in the Resources Room, I was then free to attend the rest of the conference at no charge, having paid my way by volunteering my time.
However, as I sit here over 10 years later reminiscing about that convention, a funny thing has occurred. I don’t remember a single talk, workshop, or event that I attended at that convention. I’m sure I heard lots of innovative research findings and met many important people, but none of that has stuck with me over the years.
What I do remember is my day with Phyllis. I remember when I first met her I was a bit uncomfortable and unsure of what to do or how to act. I tried (as many sighted people do) to take her arm to lead her, when instead it is the blind person who will take your arm. She taught me how to lead her, such as how and when to warn of steps or curbs. She was patient and kind and explained her needs to me. I watched her take notes in Braille, and noticed her find and avoid impediments and obstacles that I hadn’t noticed and wouldn’t have thought about.
My day of volunteering was an incredible experience - one that has stuck with me for many years. I may have volunteered solely for the purpose of getting to attend the conference for free, but I got so much more out of that experience than $100 of registration fees. I got an eye-opening experience that has influenced me for years since.
Many local and national conferences and conventions need the help of volunteers. Some limit volunteers to graduate students and others accept both graduate and undergraduate students. Before you pay attendance fees (or decide that you can’t attend because of the registration fees), see if the conference you want to attend has a volunteer program for students. Not only will you get to attend the conference for at no charge or a discounted rate, you might get a little more out of the experience than you first thought.