Written By: Meghan McInnes, AFC®, FFC®, FBS®
The AFCPE® Research & Training Symposium is my favorite annual holiday that isn’t a real holiday. I’ll explain. On Thanksgiving, for example, one may go to a relative’s house to celebrate over delicious food, visit with family members they don’t see daily, get family member activity updates and share what’s been going on in their own life.
From my perspective, Symposium isn’t much different. It’s the time of year I get to visit with my financial counseling family from around the globe, glean from the great work they’ve been doing and share the innovative work I’ve been doing. I even get to visit a fellow financial counselor’s home city, and I’ve never eaten anything but a delicious meal during the Awards Dinner. The biggest difference is just a technicality—an official holiday designation from the government. I think it’s safe to say it’s got holiday vibes!
I get excited thinking about the Symposium. Once there, the energy is incredible. However, I remember being very nervous as a first-time attendee in 2014. I didn’t know anybody, and I was overwhelmed. Imposter syndrome set in, making me question if I belonged in the financial counseling space. I reached a turning point when I wandered into a hallway conversation and felt incredibly welcomed. Later on, a group of AFC® professionals encouraged a recruiter to consider hiring me; the recruiter had rejected me earlier that day because I wasn’t yet certified. Imagine my surprise when the recruiter gave me their business card and asked me to email a reminder of our conservation. I was within the first group of people hired to the program, and I view it as an integral part of my career.
A New Connection
I recently had the opportunity to virtually meet Ashley Juliano, AFC® Candidate, to discuss Symposium. She attended the Virtual Symposium in 2021 and is looking forward to attending in person for the first time this year. I happily shared my views on the Symposium “holiday” with her. Her perspective and excitement energized me. She also helped me remember what it was like to be new to the experience. To help first-time attendees and first-time in-person attendees, I’ll give some insight into the conversation I had with Ashley. I’m thankful she has given permission to share.
Insight #1: Be Yourself
Just be yourself. I’m sure you’ve heard this countless times, and it’s extremely important to keep in mind during Symposium. Think about what you want and need from Symposium; seek opportunities to fulfill what you’re looking for. Diverse ideas and perspectives make the world a more beautiful place. Let your voice be heard. Ashley perfectly said, “We all have something to offer!”
Insight #2: Connect with Others
Symposium brings financial counselors and planners from around the world to the same place. Use the opportunity to glean from the varied experiences and perspectives. Be open to connecting with new people and to understanding the broader personal finance picture. Financial counselors and planners are great partners. Learn how others can help your practice and explain how you can help others in their practice.
In-person discussions are memorable because of the great depth of the conversation. Take the time to create genuine connections that will last well into the future. Let others see your value personally and professionally. Build energizing relationships. Much like others advocated for me at my first Symposium, your newfound professional family can advocate for you. You can lean on those relationships in the future if you feel imposter syndrome creeping up.
It can be difficult feeling like a new person amongst a group of old friends; please don’t let that stop you from becoming their new friend. Join the conversation. Introduce yourself. You’re part of the community, too! If this seems a bit daunting, consider messaging others on the Symposium app to introduce yourself before the first day; grab coffee together before sessions start or think about getting lunch. Just last year, I wanted to connect with two professionals at a sister school, so I connected with them by email in advance; not only did we attend the same Pre-Symposium session, but we had an extremely helpful conversation over lunch.
Insight #3: Remember Conversations
If you take insight #2 seriously, you’re going to end up with a lot of connections. It may be difficult to remember so many new people at once. You can easily leave Symposium with a stack of business cards and a pile of handouts. Consider writing yourself a note on the back of a business card or handout. Notes may have wide variations from a reminder to apply for a specific position to something personal you discussed with them; the key is to make sure whatever you’ve written will trigger your memory when you get home.
Consider using the messaging feature in the Symposium app or on LinkedIn. Following a meaningful conversation, send a quick note referencing your discussion. Your message will serve as a nice reminder for both of you, and it opens the door to continue the conversation well after Symposium.
Insight #4: Plan Ahead
The Symposium schedule is packed. There are general sessions, breakout sessions, poster sessions, networking chats, Pre-Symposium sessions, meetings, networking receptions, excursions, and exhibits. Create your game plan ahead of time; planning your activities in the Symposium app will provide reminders on upcoming session title and location.
First, you should plan to attend all general sessions.
Next, review the breakout session options within each time frame. Select the session that best suits your professional and personal needs. Consider the session type that suits your learning style. Putting It into Practice: Innovation, Updates, and Ideas provides practical financial counseling and education applications. Research Paper provides literature reviews, research reports, and program evaluations. Research to Practice provides field advancement through research and practitioner collaborations. Student Research Paper provides research findings from undergraduate and graduate students. If you’re unsure which session to choose, you may consider looking at presenter backgrounds. Ashley used ChatGPT to make presenter background research easy, and she searched on LinkedIn when information didn’t populate on a specific presenter within ChatGPT. You should plan to attend a breakout session within each breakout session time frame.
Then, review the Pre-Symposium sessions, networking chats, poster sessions, networking receptions, and meetings. Though attendance is optional, the offerings can be very valuable to your learning and provide additional options to connect with other professionals.
Carve out time to visit the exhibit hall. Not only will you have the chance to explore a plethora of financial counseling tools and resources, but you will also have an opportunity to ask questions and speak directly with those providing the tools. Many offer giveaways and discounts, too.
Last, look at excursions you may want to do before the opening general session or after the closing general session.
Insight #5: Be Flexible
Undoubtedly, something will come up that may require you to rethink your plan. Be flexible. For example, you may choose to attend a breakout session and find there are no seats left; you could attend a different breakout session and watch a recording of the other later. You may go to a session that’s different than you had expected, and you may choose a different session that better suits your needs. Change your plan as needed to get the most out of your Symposium experience.
Insight #6: Be Professionally Comfortable
Consider what will be comfortable while moving around a large conference center while still dressing professionally.
Insight #7: Practice Self-Care
Though there’s a lot of different activities at Symposium, please practice self-care. Learning and networking can’t take priority over staying hydrated and eating regularly. AFCPE® is great about having water easily accessible and providing a few snacks. Still, you may want to consider bringing a water bottle and having a granola bar on standby in case you need something extra.
Insight #8: It’s Worth It
The last thing Ashley and I discussed was the value of attending Symposium. She found great value in attending virtually in 2021, and I’ve found immense value in attending over the years. In previous conversations, attendees have mentioned finding a new job opportunity, meeting a mentor, feeling inspired, experiencing increased productivity and motivation after returning to the office, and having a morale boost thanks to spending time connecting with others in the field. So often financial counselors are working as the sole financial counselor in their organization, and spending time with others in the same career reminds us of the community we’re a part of.
Thoroughly enjoy the fun. I hope these attendee insights give you comfort and help you feel prepared for a wonderful time of year—a time of gathering, connecting, sharing, and celebration. After all, Symposium is our unofficial holiday!