Make the most of the area. This January, thousands of people from all over will be coming to Chicago for #SLS18. It’s possible you could be one of them. You might be going with your campus, or your church, or some other group…but it’s also possible that, this time, you could be flying solo and going by yourself. Maybe you’re the only person from your university who’s heard of FOCUS. Maybe you’re the only one who can afford to attend a conference. There are plenty of reasons.
With SEEK2017, I ended up going by myself to San Antonio. It was a unique experience, and I learned a lot. Here are a few tips on how to make the most of your experience at a FOCUS conference, even if you’re going alone:
1. Know your traveling details and schedules.
I know, I know — it’s not a super-exciting way to start off, but it’s important. If you have a solid understanding of where you need to be and when, you can avoid the anxiety of feeling unprepared when a team leader isn’t guiding you. For me, it was one of the first times I’d traveled totally alone, so I had to know my stuff. Make sure you review your information. Double and triple check your gate, the airport layout and the route to your hotel.
2. Make the most of the area.
If you’re going alone, you have the time before and after the conference to yourself — no obligatory dinners or morning check-ins. Every conference is at a unique and interesting location. Get up a little early and explore. In San Antonio, I was blessed to stay in a hotel in a great location, so walking to the conference center every morning was an adventure. I also woke up extra early to see more parts of the city.
3. It’s okay if you aren’t extroverted.
If you are, great. More power to you. But your levels of human interaction don’t have to be super high for you to have a fulfilling experience (see #6). Sometimes, I initiated conversations with people while waiting in lines or stopping at booths. Other times, someone reached out to me. Occasionally, I silently reflected on the happenings of the day alone. There’s no wrong level of interaction.
4. Be smart and safe.
I know this might be a given, but as a young woman, I’m always a little more conscious of this. Obviously, use your best judgment in situations. FOCUS works diligently to make sure everyone attending the conference is safe. Don’t be afraid to go to an evening event (e.g., a concert or dance). Just make sure you’re safe walking back to your hotel. Get an escort, find a group going to your hotel, walk on main roads, etc.
5. Be open to where the Lord takes you.
Because I went alone, my agenda was 100% flexible. See where the Lord takes you. One day, I bumped into an old friend and ended up spending the rest of the day with him and a group of seminarians. Could I have planned that? No. The Lord had plans for me.
6. Attending alone doesn’t mean you won’t experience community.
Most people at conferences go with a friend or group of people they already know. Conferences like SEEK and SLS strengthen relationships among friends. It was a challenge not having my friends there, but going alone taught me something significant: The conference community isn’t exclusively accessed through one-on-one contact. You don’t need to be best friends with everyone or be super extroverted to experience community within the conference. Simply being there, I knew the people surrounding me were rooting for me, and I was rooting for them too. That’s enough. You might make friends, and friendship is a huge blessing — but you aren’t required to make friends to fill out the Conference Expectations Checklist. You aren’t having an inferior experience if you don’t instantly connect with someone. I ended up making some great friends and renewing relationships, but I could see them as blessings instead of fulfilled expectations.
7. Figure out why YOU were chosen to go and how you can share your experience.
If you were the only person from your parish/university to attend this conference, you have a responsibility to share what you learned. Of everyone else, the Lord chose you. Why? You need to spread the fire to your community at home. Maybe you need some time to ponder and reflect on what you’ve learned. That’s great, no worries! Moving forward, look for opportunities to share your experience with others. This could be through giving a testimony to your Newman Center/parish or scheduling a time to watch the talks with a larger group. Personally, I made a video to share my experience.
Here are a few more bonus tips for a great FOCUS conference experience:
- Arrive with an open mind and no expectations. You might have a major “aha moment” that rocks your world. You might hear a voice whispering to your heart. Both are okay. The person next to you might start crying during adoration. You might not feel a thing. Both reactions are okay. There’s nothing wrong with you either way. Your experience is uniquely yours. Don’t compare.
- Go to confession. I don’t care if it’s been 10 days or 10+ years. Go to confession. I can 100% guarantee that you will not regret it.
- Prepare your schedule. When you arrive at the conference, have a rough outline of your day before you leave your hotel room every morning. This will ensure you get the most out of your day while giving you flexibility. Pick talks you’d like to attend ahead of time and have a few options prepared. Sometimes rooms fill up quickly (*cough — Fr. Mike Schmitz — cough*), and having multiple options will save you from scrambling so you can quickly move on without missing a session. There will be maps and session outlines once you arrive, so utilize those resources.
- Skip the specialty drinks and stick to drip coffee. Lines get long; your baristas and your caffeine-dependent brain will thank you for speeding up the process. You might be able to save some dough if your hotel has free coffee. Bring a travel mug and beat the coffee shop madness.