The annual conference of The National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) begins Thursday in New Orleans. This event brings together nearly 6,000 college admissions professionals, college counselors and guidance personnel, and an array of other parties interested in successful transitions between high school and post-high school education (and the business it has become).
It’s an event that I look forward to every year for a variety of reasons and here are some.
For me, NACAC is a personal reminder of my uncle Delwin Gustafson’s service to the admissions profession at Gettysburg College, and NACAC, as president of the association in the mid-1970’s. The first NACAC I attended was in San Francisco and I fondly recall Del taking me under his wing during the conference and introducing me to his many cronies and colleagues. Del’s greeting was often a great big smile, an outstretched hand coked just right for an at-a-distance handshake and an enthusiastic, “Hello, friend.” (I later speculated that this was his technique to make sure he didn’t have to remember everyone’s name). Del was always generous with his time to his younger colleagues and to me (many of us still working today and attending NACAC annually share Del stories about Lefty O’Douls in San Francisco and the bus trip to the Mall of American in Minneapolis). He was always quick to introduce me to people in “his crowd”…experienced leaders in the profession. After an introduction and a brief conversation he’d share a good backstory, which always concluded in laughter and a few slaps on the back. Del’s been gone from this earth for a number of years now, but his legacy lives on in the many Gettysburg grads who have entered admissions and in the talented Gettysburg admissions who have been around for a long time at Gettysburg and elsewhere. NACAC makes me think of Del.
Del also taught me how the flow of NACAC should go; it should be fluid. Del never had a plan upon arrival at NACAC and this is my same approach to this day. A flow that is fluid does not mean I am not there to learn or that there’s no agenda…it’s not that at all. Instead, it means allowing enough flexibility that you leave room to learn and time to listen. Too many people are over-programed and committed to something or someone for the entire conference (I know of one dean that produces a spreadsheet with assignments for all staff attendees that programs every minutes of the conference). It’s too much to really learn, in my view.
I continue to find a handful of session valuable and informative and have found several in recent years that are absolutely dynamite, but the conference has grown so much (650 sessions) and the restrictions for submitting session proposals has become so bureaucratic that the very best learning and listening for senior leaders frequently occurs during vendor presentations and in hallway conversations. One of things I enjoy most about NACAC is being a bit of a voyeur when walking the hallways and looking for groupings of big-shots from the college side huddled in a corner or big-shots from the high school side buttonholing a dean from one of the super selective places. Occasionally, one can even do a little eavesdropping on these conversations and find out what’s really happening in our profession. The trick for me is to choose one or two things I’d really like to explore or learn about and then let the flow take over.
NACAC is also a great time to see old friends and make new friends. For years I’ve been staying with the same two guys. We share a room and split the cost (I sleep on the floor). It’s great to catch up with these guys and many others. NACAC enables us to catch up on family, work and play and renew friendships and colleagueship’s that have become more and more meaningful over the years. Although the conference has grown in attendance it’s still realistic to see all of one’s friends and have a meaningful conversation with each. I look forward to grabbing a beer, moving beyond the small talk and settling in with old friends who are equally committed to this profession. NACAC gives me a chance to offer words of thanks to mentors and words of support to colleagues growing in their work. And, the Counselors’ College Fair remains a highlight and a great opportunity to share new news about Augustana and all it’s doing.
While there is no question that I enjoy NACAC and all it offers and always learn something new, there are aspects of the conference that have become tiresome and tedious. For example, my custom now is to leave on Saturday prior to the Conference Social because I’ve found myself at one too many saying, “why am I still here.” Many of the same old presenters appear on the program discussing the same old things or the best presenters don’t offer sessions because the process has become some bureaucratic. Finally, we are increasingly fragmented with the proliferation of Special Interest Groups that often have narrower interests than those of the broader association. I believe this fragmentation has put NACAC in the regrettable position of needing to walk back some decisions and proclamations upon learning that a loud view was not necessarily representative the membership as a whole.
NACAC and our members must keep these things in check to ensure that our members continue work together on the larger issues that face us. We need to have the best minds provoking thought and the measured voices leading the discussions.
There are other irritants, but I am not going to discuss them here. Rest assured, though, they will be discussed over dinner, in the hallways and in many of those corner conversations. And, there will be the usual threat from many (myself included) that “this is the last one I’ll attend.”
None of us will make good on the threat because in the end because NACAC continues to be the best organization serving college admissions and guidance counseling professionals and the conference continues to be one of the best in spite of its flaws.
My uncle Delwin loved NACAC because of the friendships he’d developed over the years and because it attracts people who are like-minded about serving students and being professional in going so. I think he also loved NACAC because it was a safe place to swap a few lies, speak candidly about work among friends and recall old stories that still result in big laughs.
I look forward to NACAC for the same reasons.
W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission