Attending the AACRAO Conference | AUA Blog

Last month, thanks to an AUA travel bursary, Laura Ottery represented the AUA at the 2019 American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) Conference.

Laura Ottery
Head of the Vice-Chancellor’s Office
Sheffield Hallam University

Having attended many UK conferences in the decade I have been working in higher education, I was keen to gain first-hand experience of the discussion topics and challenges being faced in a similar, yet at the same time vastly different, higher education community.  AACRAO did not disappoint. The 105th annual meeting took place in Los Angeles, and with over 1800 delegates and more than 200 sessions, this was higher education conferencing on a scale I had never before experienced. The General Meeting was introduced to flashing lights and a Wham! dance off, first time delegates were greeted with hugs and high fives from seasoned attendees, and as the only UK attendee I was warmly welcomed by the AACRAO community (if somewhat bombarded with questions of bemusement on Brexit….).

A key theme running throughout the conference, from keynote speakers to session presenters, was for us as higher education professionals to recognise the power of education to change an individual and the impact this can have on their families, and therefore the privilege we have in our roles to affect people’s lives. This resonated strongly with me as it aligns so closely with the Transforming Lives strategy at Sheffield Hallam. Keynote speaker Byron Pitts (pictured) spoke passionately of his own experience of higher education, including how an administrator rescued him from dropping out, and how education helped him overcome a debilitating stutter to succeed as a multi Emmy award-winning journalist and co-anchor of ABC’s Nightline. He went on to encourage us to “step out” and seek how we can be of service to our students and our peers.

We heard about the importance of identity in recruitment and retention, with sessions focusing on veterans, first-generation students, transgender, and more widely on Gen Z students and their Gen X parents. I found it fascinating the way the US sector was so clear on the differing needs and support requirements for segments of their intake, with further sessions discussing Asian and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and “non-traditional and underserved” students.

Alongside student identity, staff identity was actively promoted and discussed throughout the conference. The well-established regional groups and caucuses allowed like-minded individuals to come together and build communities.  I have since joined the newly established Women’s Caucus and am already finding this a vital source of inspiration and support.

Authentic leadership and the need for leaders to create pathways for success, featured strongly in the workshop sessions, and the AACRAO Board actively encouraged attendees to use the opportunity of attending to “step out of your comfort zone” and “step up” on your return to campus to challenge the status quo.

The US College Admissions Scandal broke in the weeks leading up to the conference, and this topic remained something of a white elephant in the room throughout, though attendees were quick to point out that no admissions officers were involved in the scandal. Even if the policy and funding frameworks can be so very different, US higher education is facing similar challenges to the UK in terms of university and government relations, and with a predicted demographic dip after 2025, there is practice and solutions that we can share across the Atlantic.

This was an exceptional experience and I am incredibly grateful to AUA and AACRAO, and of course to Sheffield Hallam, for allowing me to take up this opportunity.  I would strongly encourage colleagues to consider applying for future travel bursaries and global opportunities, and to take the time out from your work places to “step up and step out”.

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