NIRSA members from the United States, Canada, and Mexico packed their bags and made their way to Texas this spring for the express purpose of furthering the collegiate recreation profession. The 66th NIRSA Annual Conference & Recreational Sports Expo took place from March 30–April 2 in Grapevine, Texas, and over 3,200 attendees and exhibitors had a fantastic time “moving our values forward!”

The NIRSA Annual Conference is an opportunity for members to come together for what 2015-2016 NIRSA Student Leader Erica Estes, Graduate Assistant for Facilities & Fitness at The University of Southern Mississippi, calls “a long overdue homecoming.” The “conference provides a sense of comfort that can only be achieved in a family setting,” explains Erica. There’s a reason members consider themselves part of a NIRSA family—for many, a highlight of the conference is the chance to reconnect with colleagues and friends.

At NIRSA 2015, members of the NIRSA family had the opportunity to learn, network, and socialize together in the beautiful Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center. The Gaylord Texan played host to almost all Annual Conference events—including over 165 sessions and presentations, the Career Opportunities Center, the Expo Hall, and even the All Conference Social! Attendees really appreciated the close proximity between various events; all of the educational sessions took place on the same floor of the Convention Center, and the longest walk from one conference opportunity to the next was a brief ten minutes. All in all, NIRSA 2015 was a rootin’ tootin’ good time and the Gaylord Texan the perfect place for members to both learn and play!

Kicking off NIRSA 2015

The week of NIRSA 2015 festivities kicked off bright and early on Monday morning with some great preconference opportunities. While some attendees remained onsite at the Gaylord Texan at one of the fantastic preconference workshops, over 400 boarded buses and spent the first day of their Texas experience supporting the NIRSA Foundation or on exciting facility trips and tours.

The NIRSA Foundation’s 21st Annual Golf Tournament at Tour 18 gave members the chance to play on a great course composed of carefully-simulated holes from some of the greatest golf courses in the US while the NIRSA Foundation Community Service Project let members give back to the Grapevine community with Grapevine Relief And Community Exchange (GRACE). Attendees at both events had a great time moving NIRSA values forward through community service and physical activity!

Later that first evening, NIRSA President Laurie Braden and Executive Director Pam Watts helped get the conference officially underway at the Opening General Session in the Texas Ballroom. NIRSA members were then treated to a fantastic keynote speech by Alvin Law, whose core belief in positive energy and great sense of humor were infectious. His speech was full of pearls of wisdom like “If you’re going to be leading people, you better like people” and “Learn to never say, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’” His opening, welcome address ended in a standing ovation as he reminded everyone in the room to “continue to change lives, make a difference, and have some fun.” A Student Senior Intramural Official at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Ethan Quimby’s response to Alvin’s speech sums up the member response perfectly: “Words can’t describe how inspirational you are. Thanks for the visit and the laughs!”

From the Opening General Session, members only had to take two flights of escalators down to attend the All Conference Social in the Gaylord Texan atriums. The first social of NIRSA 2015 was sponsored by PLAE, and lucky NIRSA members who found a PLAE shirt in the Texas Ballroom—or wore a previous year’s PLAE shirt to the social—were rewarded with prizes from PLAE representatives.

Members spent the night eating great food, racing rescued armadillos—Armadillo #2 seemed to have a definite edge over the competition—participating in Key Log Rolling at the indoor pool, listening to the O’s perform, and attempting to rope a steer. Then it was a quick elevator trip up to their rooms for some shuteye before the first day of educational sessions at NIRSA 2015, the core of NIRSA’s Annual Conference!

Amazing professional development opportunities

NIRSA 2015 provided attendees with so many valuable and diverse professional development opportunities. There were over 150 ed sessions and a Career Opportunities Center chockfull of resources for both employers and candidates alike. The COC had mailboxes for both employers and candidates, offered mock interview opportunities, résumé review, computers for candidates to apply for jobs, provided a space for actual interviews to take place, and even had a resource area. The COC was open all four days of conference, and was bustling at all hours.

Ed sessions were led by experts in their fields and covered a diverse array of topics from aquatics to student learning outcomes to health and wellbeing. There were over 330 presenters at NIRSA 2015 and the event truly offered something for everyone—certain ed sessions were popular enough that it was standing room only within minutes of the session’s start time.

Azalea Anahí Santos Farías, a first-time NIRSA Annual Conference attendee from Mexico, absolutely loved the ed sessions she was able to attend. She appreciated that “there were so many options to choose from,” and believes the sessions provided her with “a lot of new knowledge” to bring back to her team and campus. While there’s nothing like actually attending an ed session, all NIRSA members can now find presentations from NIRSA 2015 online in the conference resources library.

Networking fun

The Association’s dedication to professional networking and mentorship kicked into high gear at NIRSA 2015 with events like Take a Student to Lunch. “Each and every student can discover their niche within the inclusive environment established by the conference,” says Erica Estes, the incoming Student Leader. “The incredible opportunity that students have to network with one another, as well as to forge lasting mentor relationships, is unmatchable.” Take a Student to Lunch took place right after the Student Member Connection meeting. A handful of lucky students who participated in a SLT social media challenge during the meeting won the chance to grab lunch with 2014-2015 NIRSA President Laurie Braden. Other students gathered outside the Texas Ballroom after the meeting, where they paired—and in some cases, grouped—up with waiting mentors.

At the Student Member connection meeting, the 2014-2015 NIRSA Student Leadership Team—led by outgoing Student Leader Kimmi Sterner—thanked mentors like Greg Jordan for their leadership and dedication and welcomed the 2015-2016 SLT. Kimmi, Fitness Graduate Assistant at the University of Mississippi, admits that she “thought it would be more difficult to pass the

[student leadership] gavel, but knowing that Erica and the rest of the incoming Student Leadership Team are the ones taking over made it much easier. They are incredible and I was fortunate enough to see that every day at the conference.” NIRSA student attendees really let their stars shine in Texas at this year’s conference—not only was the Student Member Connection meeting full of bright ideas and high energy, but the SLT organized a whole series of creative social media challenges and welcomed new students with a great Student Lounge.

In addition to the All Conference Social, members had the opportunity to reconnect at numerous independent socials as well as at the Lee Wasson People of Color Social and the LGBTQI and Friends Social. During this year’s Lee Wasson People of Color Social, Director of Recreation at the University of Toledo and 2017 NIRSA Annual Conference Program Committee Chair Demond Pryor was awarded the Juliette Moore Distinguished Leadership Award (see all the recipients of the 2015 NIRSA Awards here). A surprised and humble Demond took the stage and eloquently reminded members that “You can’t be perfect in everything you do, but you can demand excellence in everything you do.”

At the LGBTQI and Friends Social, members reaffirmed the importance of NIRSA’s ongoing commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. President Braden’s heartwarming story about coming out to her father—and the origins of the Fredrick R. Braden Scholarship for Social Justice in Collegiate Recreation scholarship—brought tears to many members’ eyes and even got her choked up. It was truly a night to remember.

Attendees also had the opportunity to network and catch up while walking the aisles of a truly impressive 2015 Recreational Sports Expo. The Expo Hall Grand Opening took place on Tuesday evening, and after a ribbon cutting by President Braden and Executive Director Watts, attendees flooded the Expo Hall. So much was happening in the Expo that it deserves its own recap—read all about the fun and festivities!

Both Tuesday and Wednesday alike, the Expo Hall was packed with hundreds of representatives from 163 exhibiting companies and organizations as well as with attendees excited to build relationships with exhibitors as they got a look at the leading products, technologies, and services that will help their departments move their programs forward in the year to come. Exhibitors like Chris Hutton of BSN Sports say that it was an “amazing conference this year—actually one of my favorites in a long time.” And Chris Varin of Sportifik commented that “Everyone was so nice and friendly that it made an excellent impression on us.”

Wrapping up our time in Grapevine

Over 125 attendees—some bright-eyed, other a little bleary—started the last day of NIRSA 2015 by participating in the Mark Fletcher Fun Run/Walk, sponsored by MYLAPS Sports Timing. Attendees were ready at the starting line at 6:30am, and had a great time running and walking the 5k. This year, it was NIRSA Foundation Scholarship recipient Payton Joyner of Georgia State University who can proudly boast being the first across the finish line. But it was the contingent of highly-respected Association leaders and long-time NIRSA Foundation champions—who identified themselves as the Random Group of Awesomeness Sweepers—bringing up the tail end of walkers that perhaps evoked the warmest round of applause.

A NIRSA favorite, Paul Wesselmann, The Ripples Guy, delivered a funny and touching keynote speech that was the perfect way to wrap up NIRSA 2015. He kept the conference theme “Moving our values forward” in mind and reminded members that “You have to be able to see and remember and reflect and act on your values to hold onto them.” He also used his keynote speech to ask attendees to consider the value and importance of change—specifically by bringing up three important questions:

  1. What is it time to let go of?
  2. What will be important to hold onto?
  3. What could be useful to look forward to?

Paul had members reflect on where there’s a need for change in both their personal lives and in their recreational sports departments. He was focused on supporting both the individual NIRSA member and the profession as a whole—a real sign of how fitting a speaker he was for the NIRSA 2015 Closing General Session. The Ripples Guy then spread his trademark ripples of inspiration through the Texas Ballroom by asking members to exchange ripples cards—an activity that NIRSA members loved.

Paul’s history with NIRSA extends all the way back to the 90s and he was visibly moved—while also moving many members to tears—when he said, “I sincerely hope that the work you do enriches your own life. You have certainly enriched mine.”

The Honor Award Banquet, the final event of every NIRSA Annual Conference, took place that evening and gave members a chance to get gussied up and come together to celebrate both the 2015 Honor Award recipient and the hard work of other Association Leaders. This year’s Honor Award recipient was Maureen “Moe” McGonagle, Director of Campus Recreation at Centers LLC at DePaul University. Juliette Moore, winner of the 2012 NIRSA Honor Award, led the presentation on Moe’s many years of service to the Association and the collegiate recreation profession. A number of Moe’s colleagues came on stage to celebrate her accomplishments before she took the podium and—despite her warning the ballroom that she had nothing eloquent to say—delivered a smart and poignant thank you speech that involved bringing her supportive family onstage.

Following the presentation of the Honor Award, the NIRSA Foundation announced the results of its Annual Giving Campaign. All week, Foundation Board members and volunteers staffed the NIRSA Foundation Table and tracked donations. By the end of conference and thanks to the generous support of NIRSA members—including a record number of student members—the Foundation was able to far surpass its goal of raising $28,000 from individual member donations! In addition, members helped “Pay It Forward” to the collegiate recreation profession by participating in the NIRSA Foundation T-Shirt Sale, Quilt Raffle, the NIRSA Foundation Golf Tournament, and the NIRSA Foundation Fun Run/Walk.

Although the official leadership transition takes place on May 1, the banquet also hosted the symbolic passing of the gavel and the physical transition of the conference flag from Grapevine, TX to Kissimmee, FL. Outgoing NIRSA President Laurie Braden welcomed incoming President Stan Shingles, and thanked Association leadership for all their hard work over the past year. The 2016 Conference Program Committee, led by Chair Cara McFadden, then treated members to a glimpse of all the fun and excitement they can expect to find at NIRSA 2016!

Looking ahead

While it’s hard to believe that NIRSA 2015 is already weeks behind us, it’s impossible to not look forward to everything NIRSA 2016 will have to offer. With the theme of “A Strong Core, A Bright Future,” there will be even more amazing educational sessions, inspiring speakers, and fun networking opportunities to look forward to—all in the sunshine and warmth of central Florida!

Members can relive some fantastic NIRSA 2015 memories by checking out the NIRSA Facebook page, and the @nirsalive Instagram and Twitter feeds; a search for the #NIRSA2015 hashtag will bring up great moments from Grapevine. Photos taken by Steven Miller, NIRSA’s official conference photographer, will be available in a matter of weeks—so keep an eye on the NIRSA News for that announcement!

The Gaylord Texan was the perfect place to reconnect with friends and colleagues, to reaffirm our commitment to our strategic values, and to support the important work NIRSA members are doing every day in the collegiate recreation field. We had a wonderful time “moving our values forward” with our NIRSA family in Texas and cannot wait to see everyone again next April in Kissimmee!


If you have questions or comments about NIRSA 2015, please contact NIRSA.