Two Perspectives on the National GPA Conference by Whitney Gray, GPC and Leah Hyman, GPC

Last week, I (Whitney) had the opportunity to attend the Grant Professionals Association’s national conference in Seattle, Washington. This is my 9th national GPA conference. I’m a GPC, a GPA Approved Trainer, and I’ve presented at multiple national GPA conferences on the topic of grantsmanship at institutions of higher education. By most standards, I’m a “seasoned” grant professional and conference attendee. Over the course of the conference, at least two individuals asked me why I chose to attend the GPA conference. Even though it seems like a natural thing to do, the questions prompted some self-reflection. Especially in an age of hybrid conferences, and with a family at home, why would I choose to fly halfway across the country and attend the conference in person?

Throughout the conference, I realized my perspective as a “seasoned” conference attendee would be best if balanced by the perspective of a first-time conference attendee. I asked my colleague, Leah, to chime in with her thoughts as well.

Leah here. I was excited to head to Seattle for my first in-person national conference last week, especially after the past year and a half of almost exclusively virtual meetings. Last year was technically my first GPA national conference, but of course, it was a virtual format and a very different experience. As a relative newcomer to the field – I’ve been writing grants for just under four years now and received my GPC this past spring – I saw this as a great opportunity to truly immerse myself in professional development time. Sure, that meant dusting off my luggage, revisiting my business wardrobe for the first time since early 2020, and having to wear real shoes, but it was still worth it.

Face-to-Face Interactions

Whitney’s Perspective – As a consultant, I work out of my home, as does the rest of the team. Since the last in-person conference, our company has hired four new staff members with who I’ve interacted only in Zoom meetings. This year, two of the newer staff members attended conference in person. It was wonderful to sit down around a physical table and get to know my colleagues on a deeper, more personal level. We strategized, we empathized with each other, we shared meals, and we explored Seattle together. I learned wonderful things about my coworkers that I never would have learned in a one hour Zoom meeting.

Additionally, I find it very refreshing, especially after the season of COVID and social distancing to be in a room full of other grant professionals from all over the country, representing a variety of organizations, discussing the strategies and best practices for the obstacles we all face in our work.

Leah’s Perspective – I completely agree, Whitney. I loved the opportunity to engage with folks in person. I joined our team in January 2020, and when the pandemic hit a few short weeks later, I had only been in the same room with a few of my coworkers. Virtual meetings are effective and efficient for the nature of our work, but they just can’t facilitate the depth of connection you can glean from spending time in person. And it’s those deeper connections that make us a stronger team.

The in-person conference format also allowed me to interact with professionals from outside of our team, resulting in great discussions and learnings that are difficult to capture from a Zoom chatbox. Prior to this experience, I hadn’t been around that many grant professionals. It was energizing and motivating to look around a room and see so many people with similar professional interests, goals, challenges, and successes.

Professional Growth and Development

Whitney’s PerspectiveI believe the GPA national conference is the gold standard in professional development for those of us who choose to make grantsmanship our profession. Whether in-person or online, the content knowledge of the speakers is outstanding. As a GPA Approved Trainer, and as a consultant who trains on grantsmanship at institutions of higher education, I made a point of paying particular attention to the presenters’ delivery styles. I picked up some presentation techniques I definitely want to add to my repertoire.

When I first started attending the national GPA conference, I was new and uncertain in my abilities as a grant professional. Session after session would give me a big “aha moment” that transformed the way I went about my work. Now, as a “seasoned” grant professional, even when a workshop doesn’t exactly meet my expectations, I am always left with at least one tidbit of information or question to ponder as I go back to my regular workload after conference. Now, I find the professional development is more subtly woven into my work, and as a result, is likely to be more sustainable. Regardless of what I learn at conference, I always come away with new ideas, re-energized to approach my work with a fresh perspective.

Leah’s Perspective – After having attended conference virtually last year, I had some level of expectation for the quality and type of sessions that would be offered. And like last year, the variety of session topics made for difficult decisions in some of the time slots – do I attend the session highlighting federal opportunity forecasts, or do I go to the deep dive on pre-award management tools and procedures? The ability to watch recorded sessions after the fact alleviated some of the decision-making pressure, but for me, it’s much tougher to engage with material presented on my computer screen than that presented in person by a dynamic, seasoned speaker. Again, it’s an energy transfer that just doesn’t come through virtually. The ability to have quick breakout sessions and to physically turn to the person next to me (rather, six feet away from me) to discuss our reactions is invaluable.

With that said, I’m grateful for the flexibility to log into my GPA account and watch recorded conference sessions after the fact. It’s an incredible professional development resource that I’ll take full advantage of. However, I often learned just as much (if not more) from the in-person post-session conversations with peers who attended the same trainings – something that’s much tougher to get from a virtual format.

Paying it Forward

Whitney’s PerspectiveI remember the first time I attended the national GPA conference. I didn’t know anyone, and I had so many questions. I had a lot of learning to do. To this day, I still remember the one or two “seasoned” attendees who took time to share a word of encouragement or a very helpful tip with me. Now, I’m the “seasoned” attendee and I really enjoyed sitting down at the lunch table each day next to a pink ribbon-wearing first-timer. Hopefully, I was able to share a piece of my experience that can be applied at their respective organizations.

Leah’s Perspective – And I’m grateful for the seasoned attendees like Whitney who made the conference experience that much more valuable to me. While I had the benefit of a previous (virtual) GPA conference under my belt and therefore didn’t feel like a total newcomer, it was great to hear from others about how the conference has changed, grown, and benefited their work over the years. I look forward to building upon this experience, the information gleaned, and the connections made.