Professional Development Without Conferences

Professional Development Without Conferences by Joe GutowskiIf you’ve been following this series of blog posts, you read some important words from Ma’ayan Plaut earlier this month who spoke about investing in your professional development. But what if your investment account (read: “travel budget”) is a little lighter than others? Does that mean you shouldn’t put as much effort into your professional development? Absolutely not!

It’s very easy to think of “professional development” exclusively in terms of attending conferences and not go beyond that definition. In truth, while this can be one (albeit expensive) piece of your individualized professional development plan, it should never be the only element. Those who have travel budgets view conferences (I hope) as a privilege; I know I do. When it comes to saving money or making critical departmental budget cuts, usually the first area that gets reduced is the “travel” line.

Professional development should be a year-round aspiration for all of us; we can’t rely on a single conference featuring a series of educational sessions and seminars to help us grow into the professionals that our students need us to be. Realistically, we can’t always count on the fact that we’re going to have the budget to make such investments.

As you are considering adding to (or planning) your professional development for 2015, here are some suggestions—at little to no cost to you or your employer—to give you a jump start:

Skill Development

Talk to your supervisor; if you’re struggling to find ways to get connected on campus and engaged beyond your job, speaking to your supervisor is a definite first step. Your supervisor should be concerned about your professional growth and should know a variety of ways of strengthening your skill set.

Start Reading

Join (or start) a book club: There are a number of excellent reads out there. All it takes is 4-5 people, a willingness to devote some time to reading the book and have some quality discussion with your colleagues. While it doesn’t necessarily need to be a book about higher education, I think it’s important to relate the book to your job or to your students. Reading keeps you current, helps you see different perspectives, challenges your way of thinking and can give you new ideas for your job. (Check out this post from Dylan Wilbanks for a deeper look at professional reading.)


You can subscribe to blogs, review articles in professional magazines, and/or spend time with The Chronicle of Higher Education.  If you have access to current higher education journals, that’s even better.

Engage on Social Media

There are any number of Facebook groups you can join to ask questions or just view posts. If you are on Twitter, you can follow Twitter hashtags (#sachat, for example) to connect with a virtual community with similar interests. The amount of time you devote to social media shouldn’t prohibit you from doing your job, but should serve as a complement to your regular daily activities.


If you’re a member of a professional organization, do you know if there are ways you can get involved without travelling to a conference? It’s very rare that anyone turns down someone who comes forward and wants to help.  If there is any “behind-the-scenes” work that can be done, you just might be the person to do it. There’s skill-building opportunities for you and the organization is able to advance its mission that much further. A win-win for everyone involved. (Check out this post from Patti Fantaske for a deeper dive on this topic).

Write for Publication

As practitioners, it’s not often that we get a chance to write (other than the occasional report or policy update). So don’t be afraid to share your knowledge on paper. Write something for a newsletter. Or a guest post for a colleague’s blog. Because that happens sometimes.

Network on Your Own Campus

Professional development doesn’t have to be structured. Get out and meet colleagues on campus. Don’t just eat lunch in your office or with the same people every day. Take time to introduce yourself to peers across campus (or, if you’re not the outgoing type, have a friend assist in making introductions). Sometimes, it’s the people in your own backyard that can help you be a better professional. (Matt Klawitter talks more about this in this post.)

Take Advantage of Professional Development Activities on Your Own Campus

These can be offered from a variety of sources, usually through a committee or through your Human Resources department. Better still, find out if there is a way to help coordinate those  programs on campus. (put this bullet point after the network on your own campus bullet point)

Connect with Colleagues Who Attend and/or Present at Conferences

Take the time to know what kind of sessions are going on at the various conferences (ACPA, NASPA, ACUI, etc.). Very often, the listings of those sessions are public, either on a website or through an app like Guidebook. Don’t hesitate to ask a colleague who’s attending or reach out to a presenter about sessions that are relevant to your job or just seem really interesting. Chances are, if you ask about their presentation, they’ll be more than willing to provide some information for you. Along those same lines, NASPA has a “virtual ticket” (see here for more details) that allow you to directly view a subset of the education sessions and featured speakers at the conference.

Visit Local Colleges and Universities

Related to the previous topic, this requires a little bit more of a time commitment but sometimes the best way to learn how to do something is to learn how others do it. And if you have a local institution (or more) nearby, why not schedule a visit for your team to take a trip and gain a different perspective?

Attend Webinars

If you have the technology and the space available, you can have multiple people participate in the webinar, thus splitting the cost per person among several individuals rather than just one. The opportunity to share not just the cost but importantly, the content with your colleagues is critical and can lead to further discussion on campus about a particular topic.

Start Your Own Discussion Group on Campus

At a former institution, colleagues felt like they didn’t have the opportunity to talk about issues or current topics in higher education. It just took someone to organize the group, reserve the room and develop some discussion items. The next thing you know, the “Lunch Bunch” was born. So don’t be afraid to take some initiative if you feel so inspired.

Go Outside Your Comfort Zone

I read a tweet recently from a colleague (h/t @lizmconley) that I’ve probably seen in a variety of formats a number of times, but the timing of this tweet was especially appropriate.

Professional development doesn’t necessarily mean you stay in your field – look to the fields of management, business, psychology or other arenas to do your learning. It can help make you a more well-rounded professional and, perhaps more importantly, a more well-rounded individual. (Read more about this from Amma Marfo and Dr. Julie Payne-Kirchmeier.)

Professional Development Without Conferences Is Possible

What if, suddenly and without warning, you were told that you couldn’t travel? Would you sit back and wallow in misery that you weren’t able to fly to <insert cool city name here> for a few days with friends and colleagues? Or would you flex your creativity muscles to find a way (or several) to better yourself? I’m guessing that the creativity would come out and your individual professional development program might look a lot different than it does now. 

Wishing for a bolder and stronger you for 2015.

About the Author

Joe Gutowski PhotoJoe currently works as the Director of Student Activities & Strebel Student Center at Utica College in Central NY and has been there for 2 years. Prior to joining Utica College, Joe spent 11 years as the Associate Director of Student Activities & Leadership at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio and has also worked at Denison University and The College of Wooster.  He graduated in 1998 with an M.A.  in Higher Education from the University of Michigan and has a Bachelor’s of Business Administration from the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
Joe is an active member and volunteer of the Association of College Unions International (ACUI) and currently sits on the Association’s Board of Trustees as an at-large member.  Outside of the office, Joe enjoys spending time with his wife Debbie and son Adam.  A native of Detroit, he is also an avid sports fan (Go Blue), reader and aspires to golf much better than he does.
Feel free to contact Joe at any time via email (, Facebook (/jgutowski) or Twitter (@j_gutowski).
Like this post? Learn more about the Resolve 2015 series.

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