On October 27, 2020, I opened my laptop for the first day of the 2020 NRPA Annual Conference: A Virtual Experience (NRPA Virtual) with feelings of excitement, nerves and a full cup of coffee. The nerves bubbled up as I was not sure what to expect or if I was able to contribute anything of value in the discussion forums since I am still a student — a junior at Indiana University studying parks and recreation.
I shook it off because, in reality, we were all there to grow and learn. I sipped my coffee, opened my notebook and settled in.
The first Coffee Talk of the conference set the tone for the next three days. The session presented by Allison Colman, NRPA’s director of health, and Mercedes Santoro, deputy director of Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, addressed trauma in our communities and how park and recreation professionals can change the course of someone's life with trauma-informed care. Empathy. That was the key word I took out of that session. We cannot help others if we do not slow down to understand their history and build genuine connections with our community members.
I was fired up after that session and eager for more knowledge!
As a student, I went into the three-day conference knowing that I was going to learn valuable lessons and use the information to balance my formal education and emerging ideas in the field. I was blown away by the main topics of this conference: social and racial justice, equity, leadership, community connections and up-and-coming trends. It was exactly what I needed to understand the real-life daily challenges and successes in the field, as we focus so much on the building blocks of parks and recreation in my coursework. Attending the conference gave me a leg up on projects and lessons learned in my program.
What I did not expect out of the conference were the tears that flowed from my eyes after hearing dozens of other professionals talk about their passions, innovations and ideas for the future of parks and recreation. Even though it was virtual, there is so much power in being surrounded by people who are equally as spirited about their role in their community as you are.
If you are a student or thinking about attending for the first time, DO IT. I mean it, you get to connect with people, learn how others are doing things all across the country, discover ways in which you can impact your community, better yourself professionally and have a blast doing it. At $45 for the student pass, it was the best way I could have spent my money and three days of my time.
Here are some things that helped me at NRPA Virtual, and some things you should know before attending a virtual conference:
- You absolutely need a notebook and a pen! Write down everything; speaker names, contact information, main points and discussion content.
- Step out of your social comfort zone, even just once per session. Meet with people and connect in discussion forums or just chat with people in the room, if possible. I was not able to build as deep of relationships as I would have preferred because I was on Zoom for my college classes. However, my notes from above came in handy when I went on LinkedIn to connect with speakers and some attendees I chatted with in the discussion forums.
- Get cozy - find an area that is quiet, comfortable, and as distraction free as possible.
- Dedicate the days following the conference to review sessions you missed. Life happens, and time slips away from us as we transition out of the conference mode and back into work. Since this year was virtual, you get access to all the sessions for almost a month following the event (until November 28) if you were a registered attendee, so make use of it!
After attending NRPA Virtual and hearing the devotion from park and recreation professionals around the country, I have full faith that the field of parks and recreation will continue to do better for their communities. From what I saw, the field is full of people who care and are trying to build strong and resilient communities.
As long as I can help it, I will be at every NRPA Annual Conference going forward. Nashville, here I come!
Amanda D’Agostino is a student at Indiana University studying parks and recreation. Connect with her on LinkedIn.