How to Unpack after a Conference

By Julia Price

    Photo source: ACSD Facebook

    I am terrible at unpacking. After a trip, my suitcase sits intrusively on my bedroom floor for a week. Once I grab the things I immediately need, the rest resides in a tangle of earbuds, spare chargers, and wrinkled laundry. I tend to stub my toe at least once on my abandoned luggage. It's a painful reminder that I am home but I have yet to fully transition.

    Professional conferences, especially the best ones, send you home with an overflow of souvenirs. I am not referring to conference swag. (Although I'm always excited about another travel mug.)  I'm referring to the padfolio bursting with session notes and the mental heap of ideas and conversations. If we do not unpack, we are likely to take only what we need at the moment, leaving valuable relationships and important ideas buried at the bottom of our conference tote bag.

    So after a night’s sleep in your own bed, set aside time to mentally unpack the conference you attended.

    Put away new ideas so you know where to find them

    Review your notes from sessions, look through the pictures you took of presentation slides and bring order to the handout chaos. Consider creating a list of action items to focus your direction. One of my colleagues starts his list at the beginning of the conference and adds to it as he goes. That’s a genius move.

    When necessary, add context to your notes so your future self can actually understand them. Assume you will not remember the context for pithy phrases like “merchants of cool.” Remember to follow up regarding materials you want to request from presenters or find elsewhere.   

    Once in order, file your notes in their proper place, so you encounter them when you work on the task they inform. Consider scanning an electronic copy of notes to save in your cloud. Hold onto those resources as you move between positions and institutions.

    Not sure where to start? Develop a list of concepts that you want to better understand within the context of your institution. Seek out the person who handles that topic at your institution and learn from them. Also, update your reading and materials wish list and start working through it.  

    Schedule a few times throughout the year to review your notes and check in with important connections. Be sure to calendar an actual time or it will quickly become the task you push off.  In the future, block off the day after conferences as a catch-up day. Use that time to unpack the conference and address emails that came in while you were away.

    unpack your connections before they wrinkle

    Create a system for the business cards you collected. For example, make a note on the back about where you met your colleague and what you discussed. You can also open up a new line of communication by sending a thank you email to your colleague. Casual social media connections might be appropriate depending on the relationship. However, remember that emails or phone calls are still the best ways to communicate about professional matters.

    Be sure to send thank you cards to folks who were helpful to you at the conference by serving on a panel or lending you a great deal of their time or resources.

    Take your involvement to the next level: Identify possible mentors and be especially intentional with those connections.  Then, consider which of your colleagues you want to cheer on, and develop a way to encourage them.  

    Untangle the odds and ends

    Whether you were supported financially or just through time off, prioritize demonstrating the value of sending you to the conference. Thank your supervisor for supporting your attendance. Then articulate or even prepare a summary of specific items you'll apply that year.  Include plans for collaboration with folks you met. Let your supervisor know you represented your sending institution well. Discuss the practices you shared from your institution that inspired colleagues at the conference.  

    Keep the learning going. You can also offer to teach or lead a team discussion about something you learned from the conference. This also fosters a culture of sharing and makes you a stronger teammate. You can also help your supervisor support your development by letting them know which topics grabbed your interest. Brainstorm possibilities for deepening your experience with those topics.

    Plan for future investment in the conference. For starters, fill out the conference evaluation. It's your duty as a professional to provide feedback that guides future conferences. Then start a list of topics or projects you could present on at the next conference. Consider which collaborative or initiatives you want to invest in and reach out to see how you can help.  

    Remember the little things, like turning in receipts from the conference and updating your resume if you presented.  

    Treasure your souvenirs

    When I establish a place to display keepsakes and share stories with folks at home, it enriches the adventure.  The same can be true for our learning and growth at a conference. When we take the time to unpack our experience, we enhance the value of the concepts we learned and the relationships we formed along the way.


    Julia Price serves as the Assistant Director of Campus Life for Staff Development at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, SD

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