Another Conference?

Academic conferences. Man… I hate those things.

I’ve been told that conferences are places for networking to advance my career. I never could bring myself to network with this intent – it felt disingenuous and exhausting. Time after time, I felt that I failed with every attempt.

However, an academic conference I attended this summer was the best conference experience I have ever had. 

I was fed up with my previous experiences and decided this time I would have two goals and nothing else: 1) serve in whatever way beneficial for everyone and 2) have fun.  

Someone posted a thread on the conference app asking if anyone wanted to play volleyball at the hotel sand court. Nobody responded. I thought, “Volleyball could be fun,” and the lack of response may be that nobody wanted to be the first to respond to a “non-professional” activity.   

Keeping in line with my two goals, I responded. Immediately others started responding. I went ahead and picked a time and scheduled a ”meetup,” which ended up having over 30 RSVPs and was requested the next day again.

After seeing how successful that turned out, I got bolder. An idea came to me about setting up a Christian gathering. I know that it is easy to compartmentalize parts of life that are “God-related” versus “Not God-related.” I thought a Christian gathering at the conference could be valuable in helping to break this compartmentalization.  

Not knowing if anyone would respond, I simply picked a time and location and posted a meetup on the conference app. It felt slightly nerve-wracking because I was afraid of being the guy who tries to start a Christian gathering at a professional conference that everyone ignores. 

To my relief and slight surprise, 13 people RSVP’d. The gathering was very encouraging. It was special to connect with brothers and sisters in a world where God is rarely discussed. Everyone was highly appreciative of the gathering and requested that we repeat it every year in the future.

God used the visibility of my participation as a faculty member in these things to draw students to me who were seeking mentoring. 

Two Christian students approached me and wanted to schedule a time to talk. One of the students met me through the volleyball, and the other saw that I organized the Christian gathering. I was able to meet with each of them during the conference to offer encouragement and share my experiences of my attempts to balance my Christian walk in the academic environment.  

I did not do any intentional networking at this conference — some people sought me and talked to me. I had a meaningful experience and lots of fun. 

Was my investment in this conference beneficial for my career? I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter.   

While I’ve enjoyed some academic success before, this conference was a vivid reminder that if I were to pick between experiencing a successful life versus a meaningful one, I’d pick the latter any day of the week. 

Ethan Kung
Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering
Clemson University