How to attend a Virtual Diversity STEM Conference

Dedicated to two of my amazing students (N.D & J.J) who are destined for greatness!!

It’s officially been a year since the worldwide pandemic affected us all. In the blink of an eye everything changed. As the vaccines begin rolling out, slowly but surely we see things beginning to return back to pre-pandemic mode but large gatherings such as in person annual conferences are still on hiatus.

In my own work with students I think about upcoming the annual diversity-focused STEM conferences and the important role they play in shaping a student’s college experience. I remember it like it was yesterday I was on a bus coming back from a field trip talking to one of my first year students telling him about this amazing Black Engineering Conference that he just HAD to attend. My student was excited and the look on his face said it all, a look that said, “Wait, you mean there’s an actual conference for Black Engineers?” As one of only a few black engineering students he did a double take, yes I’ll go but on one condition, can I bring two of my friends who are also first years he asked. I wouldn’t have it any other way I told him. We got them signed up to attend the National Society of Black Engineers conference which was supposed to be in San Antonio, Texas. I heard briefly about “some flu” that was going on but paid little mind, then suddenly we got an email confirmation that NSBE would be cancelled and it seemed in the blink of an eye the world shut down.

For minority students in STEM any opportunity to be amongst other underrepresented groups in STEM seems like an impossible but magical experience. I’m here to tell you, it’s not impossible but it is indeed magical. I’ve seen the magic in my own students who come back from attending conferences such as American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), SACNAS, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Tapia Diversity in Computing Computing, Grace Hopper, Out in Stem, Great Minds in STEM, or the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS). For the time being many of these conferences are virtual. Whether this is your first ever conference or your first virtual conference I’d like to offer you some tips on how to maximize your first virtual STEM diversity conference. Truth be told I cannot wait until these conferences are in person but for the time being here are my tips to maximize these opportunities

  • Your virtual set up. Since these are virtual conferences you will probably be joining from the comfort in front of your laptop. In order to fully engage in this experience be sure that you are set up so that you can fully immerse yourself in the experience. Let family members or roommates know that you are not available. Physically you might be sitting right there but you are officially “out of office.” Let them know that you’re attending a virtual conference and just simply aren’t available. In order to truly experience the virtual conference you need to make sure that you’re engaged in what’s in front of you on the screen and not what’s going on in the background. If possible wear headphones and I would suggest going to a space where you typically do not study or attend virtual classes. This will help with making this a “new experience.” Sounds weird, but I promise you the unfamiliarity factor will help with creating a simulated conference experience.

  • Dress to impress from the waist up. If you were to attend a professional conference like NSBE for SHPE there is a strong likelihood that you might be that you are expected to wear professional attire. With a few exceptions this is generally the case and since it’s a simulated experience I would say go for it! Collared shirt or a nice blouse, why not? A blazer over a t-shirt works wonders. Why not even throw in a tie? Or even a bow tie? Do it! You’ll look great. Chances are the salons are now open so if you are looking for an excuse to treat yourself here it is. Whether you decide to go full glam or a little bit of mascara you’ll be surprised at the boost of confidence you’ll have. Even these minimal wardrobe and style changes can make a big difference. Also, be sure to also have either a professional background or use the blur background if your “conference” room is messy. Some students will also use their “official” college Zoom backgrounds. This is not only a great conversation piece it’s also a good go-to. Check the pre-conference guidelines to see if they have restrictions on backgrounds. They likely don’t but you never know?

  • Think about why you’re attending the conference in the first place. Is it to find an internship? Attend workshops? Learn about graduate schools? Find a full-time job? Get a professional mentor? You’ll need to do some pre-work to see which companies and schools will be there. Start searching now to see who will be there and when. Create a conference schedule using your own calendar and write down what sessions you’ll want to attend and when. Never ask a company, “So what do you do exactly?” Do the pre-work by investigating them online. Look at the company directory listed on the conference website then go to that company’s website and look at the types of positions that they hire for.

  • Get enough sleep. Being in front of a screen is exhausting. Make sure you’re well rested and well hydrated each day of the conference. Sometimes the conference schedule might be on a different time zone so be sure you have the right times. The last thing you want to do is miss the conference because you didn’t realize the time zone difference.

  • Update your resume and LinkedIn profiles. Chances are you’ll interact with speakers, other students, and recruiters who you’ll want to connect with after the conference. Be sure that you have a LinkedIn profile and that it’s updated. For instance, if you are a transfer student and you transferred from a community college to a university over a year ago why does your LinkedIn still say your former school? (Yes, I’m talking to you. Some of my own students still do this!) Do you have an updated resume? Make sure you have one in PDF format. PDF is always better since Word is weird at times. Many conferences will invite you to submit a resume before the conference begins. If you haven’t submitted yours do so ASAP. Be sure to check your emails often since sometimes you’ might be invited before the conference to schedule an interview slot.

    Quick reminder: phone number and email on your resume!! I’ve seen a lot students forget to put their phone number. Also, QR Codes?? Not now, you’re online there’s no point right now.

  • The magical part. Now as I mentioned part of the allure of these conferences is having an opportunity to be in a setting where “you’re not the only one.” There is truly strength in numbers but the trouble is as an underrepresented student in STEM you rarely get to see a visual representation of that diversity in STEM. You’ll be surprised at just how friendly people are at these conferences I’ve mentioned. Whether you’re a freshmen or a graduate student if you’ve ever been to an in person conference of any of the organizations that I’ve mentioned (SHPE, NSBE, SACNAS, Tapia, etc) you’ll recall that folks will be willing to chat with you in the elevator or maybe even willing to share an Uber ride. That’s why they call it an elevator pitch. So why are people so friendly at these conferences? The truth of the matter is that professionals involved with these organizations understand and realize the importance of giving back. Most of these professional organizations SHPE, SWE, NSBE, AISES, SACNAS, etc have national and regional boards all of which have volunteers. Some attendees are going to these conference as part of Employee Resource Groups (ERG) to recruit at the career fair so in these cases maybe their companies fund their participation, however, there are many professional conference attendees who go on their own dime. These individuals pay out of pocket because they want to “give back” and many others go simply because, like you, they look forward to that time when for once they are not just one of a few. Despite a plethora of diversity initiatives and catchy marketing initiatives we still do not have adequate numbers of BIPOC in STEM and the numbers do not lie. Let me be perfectly clear, there is no shortage of candidates. There are just too many systemic barriers and climate issues which plague higher education which is why these conferences and the connections made at them are so important.
  • Chat with people if you’re in a breakout room do not turn off your cameras. Be present and engage. Ask if they are willing to connect with you on LinkedIn or if you can email them. Be fully present. Again even if it’s remote folks are willing and interested in helping you in your own pursuits.
  • Follow up. When you do follow up with someone you’ve met at a virtual conference be sure to mention how you met. Don’t just simply say, “remember me we were in the chat room?” They were likely in a lot of chat rooms so remind them of how and what you were talking about or if possible mention the actual setting or specific workshop.
  • Virtual Name Tag Be sure you have a screen name that is your actual name. If using Zoom first and last name and preferred gender pronouns are standard Zoom protocol.
  • Test your computer BEFORE the conference begins. Download any software needed or anything you need to do to prepare. Use a desktop computer or your laptop as many of the conference event software is not accessible on Chromebooks, tablets, or mobile devices.
  • Think ahead. Last but definitely not least realize that next year, fingers crossed, things will go back to normal and once in person activities resume order business cards AND print out your resumes you’ll need them. See upcoming Diversity in STEM Conferences for a listing of dates for the remainder of spring and fall. Last but definitely not least! Tell me about your experiences at these conferences. I want to hear about your experiences and your successes!

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