June 10, 2009

Two Years Later

(NOTE: this post is a bit late...so just believe it's two weeks ago, thanks! emoticon: :) )

I returned to Cruces after a weekend in Tuscon in Arizona. I described the mirth and merriment of thousands of college students, dressed in garb which reflected either their school pride, their spirit, or their creativity to my friends who have not once ever attended such a gathering. Their first response to me was: how much drinking was going on? When I explained that this was an alcohol free conference, they all made twisted faces of confusion. I can't fault them. In an MTV-Collegiate world where movies twist the hell out of the college experience (and believe me, I'm not saying that college life is perfect either) it's not suprising that we would contemplate:

Is it possible to gather that many college students for a weekend and keep them occupied without drugs or alcohol?

Two years ago, at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I was a part of something I never thought I would experience, especially as a team player of planning that experience. But even years before that, as I've written previously, I never thought I myself would be so invested in the spirited, crazy, hopefulness that is the National Association of College and University Residence Halls (NACURH...NAH-kur).

While I did not drink in my early collegiate career, I too sat in a room full of costumed collegians and thought: W...T...F?! How can all these people be so excited and jacked about leadership? Or living in the dorms? Or being a part of Hall Councils (which are barely attended)?

I think the answers to those questions can be helpful to us at large, and, to be honest, attending my first Res Hall conference after retiring from Res Hall Life gave me a new perspective, and once again reinforced the mythical nature of this very real experience that takes place once a year. And while I'm still certain--based upon the looks that local shopkeepers and summer students gave the NACURH delegates--that it will be sometime before something like NACURH becomes mainstream or popular enough, it will never become MTV's saturation of 1984-like societal numbness.

Quick Refresher: NACURH is a non-profit organization dedicated to hosting conferences which discuss a myraid of topics related and focused on college students, especially dorm living, while simultaenously providing programming and oppurtunities for students to nominate their best practices or reverred team leaders for acknowledgement of service and contributions.

Oh yeah, and there's a lot of cheering and playfullness going on as well.

The national conference was at the University of Arizona this year. My friend, Ryan Bronkema, was recently elected as Regional Advisor to GLACURH (Great Lakes Affiliate of College and University Residence Halls...aka the region that Wisconsin resides in...where he currently works). Upon hearing that he and several of my former colleagues would be there, I decided to attend as an Alumni (a funny story all to itself, which I will muse about some other time).

The last NACURH I was at, I was a bit busy. As conference advisor, while I did get a fair amount of sleep, I was working with a large group of students and professionals to make sure things were running as smooth as possible. Again, more stories for another time, but it was a great experience which I can only sum up by saying: you should've seen the look in my friend Nicole's eyes during the last night of the conference...it was a calm cheerfulness of excitment.

Thus, it was a joy to still attend, and present, and cheer, and hang out, and attend the major events, yet have the view of an "oustide" observer at times. While many things swam in my head throughout the weekend, three stick out.

1. Community is important. Keynote speakers and presenters and professionals alike have continuously commented on the positive energy that encompasses the conference. The energy alone could be bottled up and sold as some magical elixer that makes you feel groovy forever. I noticed, though, that the even inside the larger community of crazy kids running around and meeting each other, and sharing stories, and teaching/learning, were smaller communities. For instance, the individual school communities.

I've talked before about the Spirit Award (good job Arizona State for winning it!!!) being an oppurtunity for team building, yet I see that part of what inspires confidence and gives a chance for self-identity is to be a part of a small community where you get to see your teammates take positive risks. From there, I think those few students who have attended enough to see friends from other schools, or regions, create another small community. That familiarity makes you realize, even without saying it, that there are others who understand what you do. These communities bring about the best of unity and diversity.

2. Taking Positive Risks. While I did not get a chance to attend some of the student programming, from having read through the program descriptions and talking to some advisors, I forget what a great chance these conferences are for students to try out new information. In education, I know the struggle it is for students to A. work together and B. present a topic in class. It seems that at these conferences, the work is effortless, or at least met with enough enthusiasm that people have a chance to share something they are proud of.

Comparatively to some professional approaches toward conference presentations, the student approach is pure, and innocent. It's a passion that has not yet faced the burden of cynicism through experience. Yet, and there are those professionals who embrace this notion (thanks Phil!!!) I think this a reminder that not everything has to be a 'chore' like we tend to make it. I challenge those professional presenters at ACPA, NASPA, ACUHO-I...even AWP, to veer away from the "chore-dom" that comes from presenting and embrace the rare moments we have to share and learn from each other.

3. The Importance of the No Alcohol Rule. Well after we hosted at Oshkosh, I was told that some delegations drank. I know from my first conference that it happened to another delegation. And while I'm not advocating a police state (but do advocate the you do it and you get booted rule) NACURH 2009 really caused me to realize the importance of such a rule. I was reminiscing with a professional colleague who had attended NACURH back in the day when the legal drinking age was 18. Booze was present. From what it sounded like (and I imagine there was a much different approach to all things collegiate/res life/alcohol at that time) it wasn't a riotous, destructive environment. Yet, as we imagined it nowadays, I think there's a certain empowerment which goes with not having alcohol present.

For starters, as a profession, all of student affairs constantly discusses and advocates healthy lifestyles when it comes to alcohol. The irony of professional conferences immediately hosting cash bar socials right after a key note speaker talking about the mortality rate of students who drink is not lost on the minds of many. To have one weekend a year where students (and professionals) take an oath not to drink is admirable and reinforces the seriousness of alcohol's presence on college campuses.

Second of all, consider the previous two positives. How different are those knowing that students are not high or drunk before they present or socialize with others? Not that I've seen too many professionals wasted during sessions at a professional conference, but those are seasoned folks, who are highly encouraged to present, not students who are just naturally excited to be peer teachers.

Finally, I do think the lack of alcohol has a huge impact on the positive outlook many NACURH attendees have. I've been at a student conference where alcohol was allowed (where the conference staff literally said "don't drink underage, but we won't stop you"). It was different. While students still cared, the late nights and mid afternoons where that extended community building took place had a much different vibe. And not one that built lasting friendships.

NACURH's atmosphere is such a rare occurence inside and outside of Res Life. One that needs to be experienced no matter how WTFed one is upon seeing some dude from Canada dressed in red and gold, with face paint, and cheering in the middle of campus by himself. Whether you work in student affairs, academic affairs, or elsewhere, these are concepts which can be upheld and practiced.

And, I imagine with some regularity of doing so, duplicate the hopeful atmosphere that our student leaders construct with a passionate howl.