The Real Deal: Secrets of the NAFSA National Conference

Carrie and Jessica at the NAFSA conference

Today’s guest blog is by Carrie Niesen (she’s on the left in the photo), who I consider an expert on the subject of how to tackle the NAFSA national conference!  Here are some of her tips for how to approach St. Louis at NAFSA 2013!

You’ve been abroad.  Perhaps multiple times as a student and intern.  Those experiences have been paramount in shaping your life’s path.  You completed a master’s program, spent countless hours in the collegiate classroom teaching, have work experience in a variety of different sectors…but you want something more.  You yearn for a rewarding career related to global exchange and fostering intercultural awareness.  You want to correct the ever-present stereotypes running amuck on your generation because you *do* care.  You love learning, you love people, and you want to pay it forward by helping to create the same transformative experiences for others.  You’re creative, innovative, and are dead-set on making a difference in this world.

However…your Excel sheet is getting longer and longer in tracking the jobs you’ve been applying for over the years, all while you continue to work your behind off for that first break into the field.  You’ve enthusiastically applied for the gamut of positions and can officially dominate the competition at trivia night on international education job titles.  The positions have been enticing, exciting, enthralling…study abroad advisor, international admissions counselor, global program manager, cross cultural experience coordinator…but you haven’t had much response beyond, “Thank you for your interest in X position, but we have selected another candidate.  We wish you the best of luck in your employment search!”.  You start to lose hope.

Yet, amidst the growing number of rejection emails and countless drafts of your resume, you meet a kind, wonderful soul that recommends this conference you’d never heard of called NAFSA.  She suggests how helpful it’d be to learn about the intricacies and subsets of the international education field all while connecting with seasoned professionals.  You’re intrigued, and without much convincing, you’re registered for your first national NAFSA conference.  The ‘I’m-so-excited-I-might-be-sick’ butterflies start to kick in.  What now?

If any of this sounds familiar, then you’re exactly where I was last year preparing for my first NAFSA conference experience in Houston, Texas (US).  Luckily for me, I had five conferences under my belt from graduate school and taking students to conferences, so I understood the basic structure…but I knew this time would be different.  I had to be more strategic and plan carefully.  I wanted to make the most of my (expensive!!!) experience and figure out what I was doing ‘wrong’ in my enthusiastic attempts to break into the field.  Below are three key lessons I learned as I navigated the Career Center and wore my bright red NAFSA VOLUNTEER sash in hopes of networking and discovering what I wasn’t doing to break into the field.

Career Center

1      Know your audience. I beelined it for the Career Center on NAFSA Day #1.  I was the *first* to get my resume reviewed at 8 AM sharp, and boy, was I thankful for that!  I showed up with a 13 page teaching CV and one of the reviewers asked, “What, did you start when you were 14 years old or something!?”  From their guidance and coaching, I learned the fine art of international education resume writing.  This is where I learned I was marketing myself in all the wrong ways.

2      Plan ahead.  Once I trimmed my 13 page CV down, I stopped by the on-site Kinko’s (yes, you read that correctly…NAFSA has their own Kinko’s!) to print out copies of my new one.  I intended to have my resume reviewed again, but little did I know the entire resume reviewing sessions would fill up for the ENTIRE WEEK by Day #2!  Now, you can sign up in advance to book your reviewing appointments to avoid making my mistake.

3      Take a risk.  While I was waiting (read: hoping someone wouldn’t show up for their appointment so I could get my new resume reviewed), I perused the center to see what employers were hosting round table information sessions.  I wanted to be productive with my time and avoid coming off as a circling vulture.  I sat in on a session that I wasn’t all that interested in initially, but grew more so after meeting the employer, learning about the position, and getting to know the director.  As a result of my risk…I landed a job interview later on in the week.


1      Get involved.  Volunteering was crucial because it helped ease the financial burden of such an expensive conference.  Without the volunteer opportunities, I wouldn’t have been able to go at all.  Because of the 25+ hours I put in, I got half of my conference registration fee back, and it helped me learn the behind-the-scenes aspects of a large scale, well known conference.  Don’t forget—volunteering at the conference is something you can put on that resume, too!

2      Be strategic.  Study the sessions and attend ones where you want to make connections—your volunteer status gives you the perfect excuse to strike up a conversation.  Volunteer based on your conference goals as well as personality.  If you would prefer to do behind the scenes types of tasks, then work in the Local Arrangements Team Office on evaluations quality control.  Social butterfly?  Then work the hospitality, registration, or bookstore.  Read more about the volunteer positions from the link above and sign up for your shifts using NAFSA’s volunteer scheduling system, Shiftboard.  And yes, there’s an iPhone and Android app for that!

3      Wear that red ‘NAFSA VOLUNTEER’ sash with pride!  It’s a great way to spark a conversation with any attendee and to offer assistance.  I went well out of my way to ensure what I was doing in my various volunteer posts exceeded expectations.  Some volunteers are clearly just there to get reimbursed, while others (like myself) gladly took initiative to go above and beyond.  Folks of all professional levels volunteer, so it’s not just a newcomer thing to do.  It’s a great way to make friends, too. (See the photo above of me proudly showing off my NAFSA volunteer sash and nametag swag with my new friend, Jessica.)

Want to hear more of my experience and advice?  Do you have specific questions you want answered?  Want to network with other first timers before the conference?  Join me and Melibee founder, Missy Gluckmann, for the newest MelibeeU course on NAFSA Conference Tips.  We’ll share our seasoned and former newbie perspectives on navigating and capitalizing on your NAFSA experience to help you achieve your conference goals.  Join us this Friday, May 10 at 1 PM EST for our authentic, real-deal, information packed session with plenty of time for Q&A.

Carrie Niesen

About the author: Carrie Niesen is an Innovation Associate with Melibee Global.  She has taught public speaking courses and served as an academic advisor at the university level for five years, both at Winona State University (Minnesota) and The University of New Mexico.  She holds an MA in Intercultural Communication from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where her thesis focused on re-entry and how it impacts students’ lives individually, interpersonally, and professionally.  Previously, Carrie worked in nonprofit, security management, and finance sectors.  She is a Spanish speaker that has lived in Spain, Argentina, and Ecuador, and has been to nearly 10 countries. She’ll be returning to NAFSA as a second timer and a more informed job seeker.  Want to meet her at NAFSA?  Connect with her on Twitter, or reach out through the NAFSA Conference Connection tool!



  1. Alexa Hart says:

    What great advice! So bummed I am missing out on the NAFSA conference and a chance to get my resume reviewed there. Next year!

    • ccniesen says:

      Thanks, Alexa! Glad you enjoyed the post. NAFSA would be *such* a great space for you to connect and spread the word about what you’re doing with Atlas Sliced. Think about going to a regional conference this fall! 🙂

Comments are closed.