Taking your undergraduate students to professional conferences

by Julie Dodd

Attending professional conferences can be a great opportunity not only for faculty and graduate students but for undergraduate students.

Rob Marino, associate professor at College of Central Florida (Ocala), has been taking undergraduates from the staff of the Patriot Press, CF’s newspaper that he advises, to professional conferences since 2004.

Rob Marino

Rob Marino, adviser of Patriot Press at College of Central Florida. In 2017, Rob was named College Media Association’s Distinguished Newspaper Adviser at a 2-year College or University.

He and his students attend the Florida College System Publications Association’s statewide convention each fall and attend two conferences annually hosted by the College Media Association and the Associated Collegiate Press. He and his staffs have attended conferences in Austin, Louisville, Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York City.

I asked Rob to share advice from his experience of attending more than 40 conferences with undergraduate students.

Julie Dodd: What are the benefits of taking your college students on professional conferences?

Rob Marino: Taking the students to state and national conferences allows my students to network with students at other colleges. They attend sessions at the conference and get to experience different cities. Some of the students have never flown before, so that’s part of the learning experience. Much of the learning is outside the hotel doors. They attend media tours and participate in the photo shootout contests, which lets them explore the city. The conferences provide so many educational opportunities for students from smaller towns and colleges.

By attending conferences with students, I can attend more conferences and have the opportunity to network with other media advisers.

College Media Association website

Attending conferences enables undergraduate students to gain professional development, network with peers, and explore the city where the conference is held.

Julie Dodd: How many students do you typically take to a conference?

Rob Marino: Three to six is a manageable number for me. Six is a good number to plan for sessions and activities with all their different interests. I also have to think about the number of students if I’m driving a van for the in-state conference or if we’re flying to a national conference.

Julie Dodd: How do you decide which students to take?

Rob Marino: I ask returning staff – the editors. I have known them for a semester and can determine how will they be in a public place, away from home. I know how will they do in an environment outside the college.

Rob Marino and Patriot Press staff

Rob Marino (on right) with members of the Patriot Press.

Julie Dodd: What are the advantages of attending a state conference.

Rob Marino: State confereneces allow a better chance to network with peers (advisers/students) who are close by. They can exchange ideas and swap publications. Because of the conferences, my editors in previous years have formed a Facebook group with other state community college publication staffs.

Attending an in-state conference also means a shorter time transportation time, meaning less time out of class for you and students. State conferences cost less than national conferences. The registration for the state conference usually includes a meal or two.

Julie Dodd: What’s the process for obtaining funding the trips?

Rob Marino: Requesting funding is done in late spring, just before spring semester ends. You need to be aware of all the conferences for upcoming academic year that you want to attend so that you ask for adequate funding to cover travel for entire year. Some schools have an “additional funding” pot –but those funds usually are limited and for situations such as an athletic team qualifying for a post-season competition.

The college pays for hotel, van rental, transportation, and a meal stipdend. The college doesn’t want to exclude any student from making the trip due to their economic situation.

I have several possible sources of funding. For me traveling on my own to a conference or with other faculty, I can request professional development funds. Those funds are limited and sometimes capped. So even if I obtain funding for my travel to the conference, I’ll need additional sources to fund the students.

As the adviser of the student newspaper, I request funding every year from academic affairs, as publications are included in academic organizations. I make a proposal to the academic dean or vice president of academic affairs, which covers student publications for entire year, which includes the budget for printing the newspaper for the entire academic year and for travel for the students.

Additional funding is also available from student affairs under special circumstances.The proposal is reviewed by the student life committee consisting of students and some faculty. Student life is given a budget based on a college’s expected enrollment for upcoming year. They disperse funds from that budget to student organizations such as athletics, student government, clubs – and the student newspaper.

Julie Dodd: Once you receive approval for the funding, what’s next?

Rob Marino: I’ve already started planning the trip in order to make the funding request. I have to know the cost of the conference registration and the location of the conference so I can estimate the price of hotel rooms and transporation.

Once I receive the funding, I get commitment from student editors right away — so they can make work and family arrangements to take time off for the trip. The students need to commit to the trip. Our school has a travel policy that requires students to bring in a blank check — to ensure they don’t back out of trip.

Julie Dodd: How much do you figure out about conference activities before you go to the conference?

Rob Marino: The students and I go over the conference schedule before we go to the conference. Most conferences now have an app, and we download the app to get the latest updates on the sessions. At national conferences, several sessions are going on at same time. So it’s important to plan their schedule of sessions – and to select – backup sessions in case a session they had planned to attend gets canceled.

I work with the students to select a focus for the sessions they attend based on their responsibilities on the staff. The editor might be attending sessions on leadership and staff morale. The sports editor will be attending sessions on sports. What do you want to focus on – social media, ethics. They have to pick and choose.

They must attend a certain number of convention activities, usually 10-12 sessions. That gives them time at the conference and time to explore the city. Their sessions could include a keynote speaker, a media tour, and a critique of the newspaper. I like them to hear a critique from someone else besides me. I have created a report form, and they must complete the form for each session. I let them know that some of their sessions could be canceled and to plan alternates.

I ask them to get any materials the presenter distributes or to get the website. I also encourage them to talk with the presenter after the session.

Julie Dodd: What other advice do you have for faculty who might be planning to take college students to a conference?

Rob Marino: Network with your colleagues. Sometimes you may have a student who needs a roommate to lower the cost of the trip. You can email colleagues or post on the organization’s listserv.

Julie Dodd: What do you do in terms of preparing the students for the trip?

Rob Marino: We have a meeting beforehand where they sign the Code of the Road and the college’s release form. We go over the itinerary and I stress that they can’t go anywhere alone during the conference.

If we’re flying to the conference, I go over flight requirements, like the weight of the suitcase and leaving some room to bring back souveneirs from the city we’re visiting. One time one of my students got stopped because he brought a big container of shampoo. He didn’t realize that only 3-ounce containers were allowed. I book the flight for all of us, so I arrange our seats together if possible. Southwest has open seating, so we can all sit together. I also try to arrange direct flights if possible.

I also talk with them about WiFi capabilities at the conference location, explaining that varies depending on the venue. They may need a code to log onto the WiFi or may have to pay.

Julie Dodd: How much supervision do you need to provide in taking college students to a conference?

Rob Marino: They are college students, so I’m not hovering over them like a chaperone. I give them my cellphone number in case they need to contact me. We travel together as a group and typically eat dinner together the first night. But I might not see them for a day. They must sign the college’s Code of the Road, which says no drinking, no parties in room, no drugs, and that they always be with someone from the school. If they violate any of those rules, they could be sent home.

Julie Dodd: In the almost 15 years that you’ve been taking students to conferences, have you had to send anyone home?

Rob Marino: No. I’ve been successful in selecting the right students after working with them for a semester. I know them, and there are no surprises.

The chemistry of the staff becomes even better after attending conference because they get to know each other much better.

Julie Dodd: Any other advice you give the students?

Rob Marino: I tell them to try to get to know someone else. Conferences often hold student networking events where they can meet other students. The College Media Association/Associated Collegiate Press conference hosts The Midnight Snack. Cereal and milk is provided at midnight in the ballroom, and students participate in informal critiques of their publications.

***

Check to see what professional conferences are available for undergraduate students in your discipline. You may find that there are student-focused conferences or that the faculty/professional-focused conferences include opportunities for undergraduate students.

The College Media Association/Associated Collegiate Press host two conferences each year. The fall conference is held in different locations. This fall’s location is Louisville, on Oct. 24-28. The spring conference is always held in New York City. More than 2,000 attend each conference.

In 2017, Rob was named College Media Association’s Distinguished Newspaper Adviser at a 2-year College or University.

The Florida College System Publications Association is for newspaper and literary magazine staffs from Florida’s 28 two-year institutions. The conference is held in mid-October and draws about 100 students. This fall’s conference is Oct. 11-13.

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