I often recall what the fall semester was like as a practitioner in campus recreation. I spent my time drafting my two-year travel justification proposal then eagerly waiting to hear from our director about who would be attending what conferences that year. Was I going to get to go to a NIRSA conference? Would it be a state, regional, or annual conference? Maybe they’d send me to the Athletic Business Show this time? Or maybe this was going to be my year “off”—meaning, no travel.

Once I got the go ahead, it was time to get all my expense projections together and submit my travel authorization request. Travel authorization approved, flight booked, airport transportation booked, hotel booked, and registration completed. How am I paying for this? The travel card, that’s how! Wait, what about food while I’m there? Oh yeah, per diem!

Those were the days.

Funding and tenure

After my transition to faculty member (which you can read more about in my previous post “Making the jump: Tips for transitioning from practitioner to academic”), I quickly realized that procuring financial support for my ongoing professional development was going to be slightly different.

As an academic, there is an expectation that you participate in scholarly activity—like research publications, conference presentations, etc.—to reach tenure. However, as a faculty member of a college or university department, resources tend to be limited. This has been the experience of Laura Morris, Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, as well. She says, “I was surprised as a faculty member how limited our travel resources tend to be, despite the need to present at conferences for progression towards tenure. Compared to faculty at other institutions, I receive adequate support, but am still required to spend significant money out of pocket to attend most conferences. Travel is the one area where we tend to get less funding as compared to when I was in student affairs.”

When I first began my faculty role at Lehman College, I was given an adequate amount of “start-up” funds to use toward research, office equipment, and/or travel during my first two years. I also applied for various travel grants through Lehman College, for travel scholarships through the NIRSA Foundation, and for international conference awards that were accompanied by financial assistance. Then the pandemic put an end to campus assistance for research and non-essential conference travel. I was forced to cancel all funded travel for regional, national, and even international conferences (Croatia…ugh). In addition to funding differences, conference attendance itself can be a little different when you’re a faculty member instead of a practitioner who is part of student affairs.

Solo travel

In non-pandemic times, it’s not only resources that tended to be limited. I noticed that I also wasn’t surrounded by the entourage of co-workers that would normally accompany me to a conference when I was in campus recreation. As a faculty member, I tend to be the only representative from my school in attendance at a conference—especially at a national conference. Jill Sturts, Assistant Professor at Virginia Wesleyan University, has also had this experience. “Often when you attend conferences as faculty, you are most likely the only person from your school to go,” says Jill. “You may not have a roommate, like you might in student affairs. You have to use what funds you have for your own room or find a roommate, often paying out of pocket if you do not have departmental support.”

“I tend to be the only representative from my school in attendance at a conference—especially at a national conference.”

I can even recall having this kind of experience travelling to The Academy of Leisure Sciences’ (TALS) annual conference in the spring of 2019. I was fortunate enough to be awarded a travel grant through the college to cover a portion of the expenses. I used my “start-up” funds for the rest. I was also the only person from my school in attendance though I luckily knew a few colleagues from other institutions, which isn’t always the case.

Bettering the odds

There are several ways to better your chances of attending a conference—these include internal grants through the institution you work for and grants/scholarships offered through the organization hosting the conference. Contributing to the conference in some form helps the chances of getting departmental support or being awarded a travel grant/scholarship. Serving on the conference planning committee or volunteering also helps your chances of getting funding. Another option to garner departmental support can be through presenting at the conference. This has become my number one rule for conference attendance: Always Be Presenting (“ABP” for the Glengarry Glen Ross fans out there).

If I’m presenting, my chances of receiving financial support increases. My chances increase even more if I’m presenting with an undergraduate student. Cara Lucia, Associate Professor at Elon University and President Designee for NIRSA, echoes this sentiment, explaining, “If there are opportunities for undergraduate students to compete in marketing competitions, take part in case studies, or present their undergraduate research, the school is more likely to be supportive.” Engaging undergraduate students in research and conference presentations is a good way to increase the likelihood of receiving financial support. It’s also a good way to increases the chances of achieving tenure. Travel funding really is vital for our success as faculty members.

Several funding differences exist

As with campus recreation, the amount of financial support for travel and other professional development opportunities differs based on the institution. Some institutions provide a departmental budget, some do not. Size, whether it’s private or public, and even location can all impact how much financial support an institution offers. In reflecting on her transition from a position as a campus recreation practitioner at North Carolina State University and University North Carolina at Greensboro to Assistant Professor at Meredith College, Heather Sanderson explains that “it was the cultural and financial models that impacted me differently—such as working with more gifts, donations, and grants. I do not have the same resources for research and administrative/tech support as I had at larger public institutions.”

Professional development, travel support, and research funding are not all that are limited unfortunately. Administrative and IT support—and even office supplies—can be hard to come by. Fortunately, my administrative experience from being a practitioner has helped me navigate these challenges. Until the pandemic that is.

Impact of COVID-19

Unfortunately, many conferences and basically all non-essential travel were cancelled during the immediate onset of COVID-19. As organizations have had more time to adjust to this new reality, they’ve started to host their conferences virtually. Without the burden of travel and getting a hotel room, it has been much easier to participate—especially for those of us whose college budgets have been completely frozen. We still operate on a month-to-month basis, which makes content delivery and conference attendance less difficult.

The virtual conference format is convenient, but something is missing. I think the typical conference experience—travelling to a different city, seeing old friends and colleagues, sharing ideas, attending presentations, and participating in socials—has always been valuable. While obtaining funding for in-person conferences can be a bit challenging for faculty members, it’s still worth the effort in my opinion.

Strategies to obtain funding

I write none of this to discourage anyone from making the jump to faculty. Even with these funding issues, I enjoy my role tremendously. I simply want to offer my insight into the differences between student affairs funding and faculty member funding. I think there are a number of ways to make research and travel opportunities realistic.

My first strategy is to simply ask. Sometimes, providing justification—like the fact that I’m presenting (ABP!), attending a workshop, serving as a committee member, or volunteering—helps to secure assistance. Even if that assistance only covers a part of the trip, it’s better than nothing.

“My first strategy is to simply ask. ”

My second strategy is to explore travel grants and scholarships offered by the organization hosting the conference. I received a NIRSA Foundation travel grant for NIRSA 2020 and was awarded the Emerging Scholar Award for the Fifth International Conference on Tourism and Leisure Studies in Croatia, which would have paid for my registration if I had been able to go.

My third strategy is to explore internal travel grants offered by your institution. The provost’s office at Lehman College awards travel grants every six months. These can help to minimize the costs of travel. I was awarded a provost’s travel grant that partially supported my attendance to TALS in spring 2019 and paid for my full travel to the international conference in Croatia. Pursuing all these strategies can be helpful since one grant may pay for conference registration while another partially supplements your hotel stay—and both together can help justify to your department that it should provide any remaining financial support.

Like I tell my students, when you see an opportunity, pursue it. I would much rather apply for a scholarship or award through the host organization (like NIRSA), apply for an internal travel grant through my institution, and ask my own department for financial support than do nothing at all. Sometimes I might get fully funded and sometimes I might get partially funded. Either way, my chances of having an opportunity to network, collaborate, and connect increase.

In conclusion

Although these tips are mostly for a post-COVID world, they should help with planning for conferences and other professional development opportunities you want to pursue over the next few years. Which takes me back to the two-year travel justification plan I used to complete when I worked in campus recreation. Utilizing that justification plan always gave me enough time to prepare for conferences. Current virtual conferences don’t require as much planning or justification for attendance; however, it’s good to be prepared for when we do return to “normal.” I’m looking forward to NIRSA 2021 Virtual, but I’m even more excited about future conferences where I can be among old friends—if I get funding!

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Dr. Jacob Eubank, EdD is currently Assistant Professor - Recreation Education & Therapy at Lehman College of City University of New York (CUNY). You can email him at jacob.eubank@lehman.cuny.edu.