From Blunders to Blessings: How to Make the Most of The Annual ASHE Conference

By Stephanie Aguilar-Smith, Department of Educational Administration, Michigan State University

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 11.48.08 AMHola/Hi,

We’ve probably never met, so I’ll introduce myself with this short description. I’m 5’3, slight framed, wear oversized circular, gold-rimmed glasses, and my style may easily be described as grandma-chic. Having trouble visualizing? See my near clone of a Bitmoji. Anyway, although incredibly stereotypical, I epitomize the persona of the geeky introvert turned awkward academic.

Quirky and tongue-tied, I hoped that academia would be overrun by introverts. Instead, I learned that, among research projects and publications, conferences served as a currency in academia and that one’s ability to successfully navigate these value-laden spaces rendered real consequences, particularly for graduate students and junior scholars. Yet, filled with obligatory networking, endless introductions, elevator pitches, and exhausting socials, I questioned: How does one make the most of professional conferences? How could I make the most of my annual ASHE experience?

With my track-record of nervous hellos and humiliating fan-girl encounters, the irony of me volunteering to write this particular blog—one intended to offer insight on how to make the most of the annual ASHE conference—is not lost on me. From my many blunders—perks of being an awkward academic—now, I know more than I did before. I also know like any “good” doctoral student to do my research. In service of this blog, I consulted some of my peers and faculty, asking these two main questions:

  1. What advice would you offer graduate students attending ASHE to maximize their conference experience?
  2. What are some “Not To Do’s” in terms of a graduate student conferencing at ASHE?

And so, here’s a compiled list of practical pointers to consider doing before, during, and after ASHE:


Explore the Opportunities Available to You

Apply for the ASHE Graduate Student Travel Scholarship. This $400 award supports conference-related costs for a select number of graduate students.

Register for the CEP Mentor-Protégé Program. This program pairs graduate students, postdocs, administrators, and faculty based on scholarly and professional interests.

Volunteer to be a proposal reviewer or session chair. These are great ways to serve any professional association and are, especially, beneficial options for those of you who do not have a proposal ready to submit or whose proposals weren’t accepted.

Prep Work

Plan a “doable” schedule. Use the searchable conference program to select several presentations to attend and the personal scheduler builder to organize your schedule. Rather than attending a session during every time block, plan breaks into your schedule to recharge and to connect with former colleagues and potential new collaborators.

 Schedule to attend sessions “out of your area.” Consider attending at least one session that exposes you to a new content area, methodology, or theory. Go to a session where you will learn something new, rather than only attending sessions that confirm what you already know.

Do not go at it alone. Reach out to others if you need a roommate or general advice. Schedule coffee or meals with other graduate students, and connect with faculty and administrators from other institutions. Conferences are best spent amongst peers and colleagues or, better said, among your academic friends and family. Conferences are also an opportunity to expand your network or, again said differently, to form new friendships.

Pack your business cards. Don’t have one yet? See here and  here for some tips specifically for graduate student business cards. Many institutions have a preferred printer, but there’s also many online services that provide professional-quality business cards such as Vistaprint.

Connect on Social Media

Skim the ASHE Newsletter. This email newsletter provides conference-related updates and advertises upcoming conferences, calls for proposals, job opportunities, and other relevant opportunities. Access to this listserv is one of the membership benefits of ASHE.

 Follow @ASHEOffice and @ASHEGrads on Twitter.

 Follow the ASHE-Association for the Study of Higher Education Facebook page.


Use your network. Check in with your peers and mentors so that they may help you navigate different social circles.

Come and go. It’s acceptable to drop-in late or leave a session early. To limit disruption, however, consider sitting toward the back of the room.

Introductions matter. Pay attention to how session chairs introduce presenters. They’ll not only offer you insight about the presenter, which may or may not be readily publically available. These introductions can also help you perfect your professional elevator pitch.

Ask critical questions at sessions. Presenters are looking for feedback, so that they move their work to publication. Not only can your voice and perspective benefit their work, but it can also help you polish your academic identity.

Keep your eyes on your own paper. Avoid comparing your number of conference presentations, publications, or your work to others. Try to remember that just because another graduate student, even someone in the same year as you, has authored more articles or received more awards than you does not lessen the merit, rigor, or value of your work. Everyone has their own process and professional trajectory.

Avoid the temptation of shiny objects. New ideas and concepts can be alluring, especially if you’re feeling uninspired about your work, but take time to reflect and to talk with your advisors and mentors before making a big transition in your journey.

Exchanging business cards. After exchanging business cards, flip the card you received over and write a quick reminder note to yourself detailing who they are and relevant topics discussed. You’ll meet a lot of people in a short 3–5 days. These notes will be helpful to you as you send follow-up correspondence to establish new collaborative relationships.


Follow-up promptly. Email your contacts immediately after ASHE. Like you, they also met a lot of people in a few short days. If you wait too long, they unfortunately may not remember you. Also, others will be emailing them trying to set up new projects. You want to be on their radar!

 Send Thanks. If you attended an amazing session, email the presenter(s) and thank them for their work. A short message of acknowledgement and encouragement makes a difference.

Ultimately, conferences are opportunities to connect with others in your field and to build professional relationships. In other words, ASHE is as much about scholarly engagement as it is networking. So, spark conversations! Lastly, for my fellow introverts, make time to recharge post-ASHE.

Stephanie Aguilar-Smith is a PhD student in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education (HALE) with a graduate certificate Chicano/Latino Studies at Michigan State University. She’s a graduate assistant, who supports the Student Affairs Administration program and the online HALE Master’s program. She is also the Graduate Student Life and Wellness (GSLW) Fellow, who serves as a liaison between the College of Education and the Office of GSLW. Broadly, her research agenda focuses on Hispanic-serving institutions and the organizational conditions of community colleges.

Mil gracias to Dianey Leal, mi academic hermana y colega, who always generously suggests feedback on my work.

%d bloggers like this: