I got my first big girl job in 2013. I was hired to do web and social media for a community college. I believe it happened because of luck — I was a millennial and I knew how to “social media.” Granted, I only had to juggle a Facebook and Twitter account at the time. Then I had to grumble my way through Instagram.
I was thrown into an entirely different experience from what college prepared me for. I was a trained communicator, as good as a girl fresh out of college could be at journalism, radio, and mass communication theory. I actually was more interested in graphic design than marketing, but there I was learning digital strategy on the fly and all about digital communication. I was solely in charge of social media and wiggled my way into web content strategy. It was thrilling.
Within moments of starting that first job, my college mentor sent me information about the Higher Ed Web 2013 National Conference. It was in my hometown of Buffalo, New York, and an hour from where I was living. She told me that despite being so close to the deadline, I should send a request to my boss that I attend.
So, I did. And I went.
And it taught me more than I had ever learned in college. It showed me new digital strategies and even general concepts of marketing that I had never understood or considered. It also gave me professional support — much more than what I was getting from my small team back home.
I threw myself into this association. I stayed connected with people I met, helped with regional conferences and even presented at a few. I talked about Pinterest strategy in 2016, then about starting a podcast the following year. I joined the programming committee and named to the board of directors just this past summer. I owe a lot to the organization; to the people who have helped me professionally, helped me network enough to find a job, and even became my real friends!
Being surrounded by so many people I have grown to respect in this field has simultaneously given me imposter syndrome and the strength to overcome it. This organization is filled with people who are smarter than me and filled with people I get the chance to teach and empower — there’s something pretty cool about that.
This year, I achieved a professional goal I set for myself at the 2018 conference. I wanted to participate as a lightning talk presenter because it was a format I had never tried before. 10 minutes in front of 700 people from all different schools, departments, job titles, experiences, and levels of expertise. I took on a topic that — admittedly — I didn’t feel like an expert on, but I felt a perfect balance of scared and confident walking on the stage.
It wasn’t until after I finished the presentation — after I was given a miniature version of the red stapler trophy some presenters explicitly covet — and even after I had thanked all those who took the time to come up to me after and compliment my humor, presentation style, or topic choice that I realized how much more powerful this organization can be. I could get up on that stage because I knew this would be a safe place to fail.
Since I was 22 years old and in my first job, the people in this organization have guided me (whether they knew it or not) and empowered me to take on professional challenges. They called me out when I was making a mistake and taught me how to fix it for the next time. They showed me how to make things better. They caught me as I’ve fallen (that one isn’t just a metaphor), and cheered me on (also not a metaphor — I sang karaoke for the first time with this group).
But now it’s six years later, and I am looking at my litte red stapler. It’s a means of recognizing my presentation, sure, but it’s also a humbling reminder that it is now my turn to cheer for, catch, guide, and empower others. I sat in and listened to more than ten different presentations this year. Some presenters were comfortable and experienced, others standing in front of a large crowd for the first time. If I could give all of those presenters red staplers for the “best of track” honor, I would. Their selfless willingness to teach an audience for nothing more than to share knowledge and make things better is reason enough.
These presentations – and this organization – has never been about being the best at something. Everyone walks away each year with something they’ve learned and something they’ve shared. This organization is about being better. Asking “how come” or “what if” and empowering others to head back to work and do the same – and to me, that’s much more than an office supply.