That's It, We're Breaking the Conference Model

That's It, We're Breaking the Conference Model

NicheCon has always been about two things. One, the stories. Two, bringing two communities together: those that love what they do and those who aspire to love what they do (find their niche). The conference is also about the unique career journey and practical advice from the handpicked roster of 25+ speakers from across the country to deliver their lessons learned.

Day 13 - Taking Advantage of an Opportunity


26837_790102126932_7679189_n I started at Rutgers in August 2008 and I thought I would be a small fish in a big pond. However, like I mentioned in my post yesterday, my boss Paul Fischbach did a great job of helping me network and meet co-workers outside of our department. Coincidentally, it also helped that Courtney started working in Student Life a month prior. I took every opportunity to grow my network and enhance my professional development by attending workshops and events to meet other student affairs colleagues.

A few months into my new job, I met Avani Rana who was in charge of the student leadership for Student Life. I had shared my leadership background and the initiatives I helped create at Centenary College and we quickly connected to see how I could help her out and represent our department. That spring semester Avani invited me to sit on the Rising Leaders committee and I was able to offer a module on communication during the 13-week program for first year students.

This was not only a great avenue to meet new students and represent the Recreation department, but this also fulfilled my desire to present and engage students in leadership. A year later, I remained on the Rising Leaders committee with other deans and student affairs colleagues and Avani recruited me to help out with their weekend retreat in January. Over the next few semesters I was given the opportunity to help with retreats, present workshops on group dynamics, communication, and public speaking.

Avani also planned a leadership conference every March and recruited me to present in 2009 and 2010. However, in 2010 I decided to invite one of our student leaders, Dana Wise, to co-present with me to give her practice speaking in front of her peers. We ran a workshop for other students leaders on group dynamics and being a leader even if you’re not in a leadership position.

Remember that post I wrote about attending my first NIRSA conference? Well, I stayed involved with NIRSA and became the State Director in 2011. As the representative for NIRSA I sat on various committees and helped plan the student lead-on for Region 1 at Syracuse University. Not only was this a “pay-it-forward” type of act, but I truly wanted to help students and connect them with the right professionals just like Jess Ward did for me. That’s how professional development works, you get involved as a new professional, start to carve out your niche, and then you help others find their niche.

Every year since I started at Rutgers, I had the pleasure of working with great students that were thriving in their roles with recreation, in student leadership, and NIRSA. There was something I started to observe. I started to notice that these great students were thriving in college and then after graduation, many of them struggled with being fulfilled and happy in their new post-graduation lives.

The conversations of “I think I chose the wrong major” and “I shouldn’t have decided to enroll in this masters program” or “I am bored with my job” was far too common. I would put the counselor/therapy hat back on and point them in the right direction.

Ultimately, it was these 3-4 years, that my calling to help students stand-out and give them “real-world” skills to succeed after graduation, started to become more and more important to my ‘why’ (why meaning, why I got up every morning). This was especially true when it came to pointing them in the direction to a more fulfilled life.

My initial conversations with Avani and ultimately that connection led to a realization that I could engage an audience of 50-100+ students. I was inching closer and closer to finding my niche.

What they taught me:

At the time I started at Rutgers, I was a bit nervous to be working at such a large institution. However, I learned how important outreach and exposure can be. Between the help of networking from my boss, Paul, and Avani continually inviting me to help out, I quickly established a name for myself based on my talents and skills.

How they inspire me:

The moments I have been able to run workshops, facilitate team buildings at retreats, and present to large groups has been invaluable to my work with the Niche Movement. Avani is one of many colleagues that valued the opportunity to give more people the chance to present and interact with other colleagues. This inspires me to ensure that I pay it forward and provide opportunities for young professionals to present to my students.


Early on in your career, take advantage of the committees or workgroups available for you to participate in, especially if you are passionate about it. At times it may feel like extra work, but in the long run it just may bring you closer to finding your niche.

Day 12 - Build Your Network Before You Need It


560752_10101428494247959_667716548_n While working at Centenary College from 2006-2008 I worked hard to build a foundation to build a Recreation department rather than just the intramurals programming I was hired for. When I started, the college had a new gymnasium and recreation center under construction but vision was to offer open recreation, intramural programming, trips and special events. Outside of my colleagues, I needed some help.

After doing some research, I came across NIRSA (National Intramural Recreation Sports Association), the professional development and governing body of collegiate Recreation professionals. Luckily, in February of 2007, I discovered Rutgers University was hosting a NJ NIRSA State Workshop. I registered myself and five of our student employees and this was the start of my professional involvement in NIRSA. I met several colleagues like Diana Clauss from Rider, Jess Ward from Rutgers, and John Mazurri from Stevens Tech.

Less than a year later I attended the Region 1 conference in Ithaca, NY where I brought four of our student leaders who were really interested in going into campus recreation. We got up there early to attend the pre-conference Student Lead-On portion, and I had registered all of us for the mentor-mentee program. Even though I was a professional staff, I wanted a chance to meet some other colleagues so I was excited to participate as well. That afternoon I found out I was paired with Jess Ward, the Intramural Coordinator at Rutgers.

Jess’ welcoming personality and genuine effort to introduce me to other RU alumni that were now in the field and other intramural professionals up and down the east coast has been invaluable to my career. I decided at that conference to volunteer and join a committee to help carry out the 2008 state workshop at Rider University. I had a chance to work with Jess and some other great colleagues while presenting my first workshop. At this point, I was continuing to grow our programming at Centenary while growing my network.

A short time later, I reached out to Jess about an open position within Rutgers Recreation. I applied to the job in December of 2007 but didn’t hear anything until May 2008 when I was invited for an interview for the Special Events position. It turns out, after talking with Jess, she kept me in mind and helped get my resume to the top. Long story short, I interviewed and didn’t get the position. It was ok - I got some experience and got my foot in the door meeting more professionals.

I was sure to send thank you notes to everyone I met and a few months later, I was told there was an opening for Intramural Coordinator. It turns out this was Jess’s position as she was leaving to work at Princeton University. When she was leaving, she was asked if she knew of any candidates she would recommend and she brought my name up again to her boss Paul Fischbach.

That saying, “everything happens for a reason” may be a cliche, but I went on two interviews and landed a job in August 2008 at Rutgers Recreation as their Intramural Coordinator. I owe a sincere thanks to Jess Ward for always helping me out. I remember the day I accepted, my new boss Paul called me that Friday evening to welcome me aboard - a nice gesture I still think about today.


Paul has had an influential role in helping me find my niche as he shares the same values in student development. He always looked out for me and to this day he still introduces me to anyone he knows at Rutgers. Even though I was working as the Intramural Coordinator it was an avenue to facilitate student leadership, development and offer innovative programming to the university population. Paul gave me the opportunity to be hands-on and foster a community on the Livingston campus.

Taking this job and leap into a large public university and department has been one of the best transitions that set up the next few posts in my series.

How They Inspired Me:

In this new role at Rutgers, I was able to combine my passions of programming and development with my knowledge of leadership to facilitate a community where college students could learn real-world skills. Paul always said that we helped develop and bring students together and that recreation just got in the way.

What They Taught Me:

The one thing I learned from both Paul and Jess is to always have a caring and genuine personality and help be a connector.


Take advantage of mentor-mentee programs, and professional development opportunities. Rutgers University gets about 200-250 applicants per job opening in the student affairs division. If you don’t know someone it can be very difficult to get your foot in the door. That being said, don’t just network to network. My relationship with Jess wasn’t around getting some job, it was about learning how to build my program at Centenary bigger and better. Authenticity and integrity when connecting with others is critical.

5 Must-Have Tips for the Modern Presentation


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Regardless if you are presenting at one of the upcoming national conferences, running a training for your students or holding a workshop at your institution these 5 tips are mandatory for the modern presentation. These quick tips will link you to all the resources, how-to’s and teach you how to take your presentation from good to great.

Tip #1 - Invest in a presentation remote. I can’t tell you how many times we have all sat through presentations where the presenter stands in the corner of the room using their pointer finger to advance to the next slide. Here is a list ranging from $15-$60+. I recommend the Targus for about $30 and if you want to spend a little more for features like scrolling and audio controls then invest in this Keyspan by Tripp Lite.

Tip #2 - If you are co-presenting here are a few suggestions. Split yourself on each side of the room and as you each have important points to make walk to the middle or back of the room to keep the audience engaged with you - “work the room.” Also, create a spreadsheet: 1st column number down for every slide you have. Then put a short title or subject of each slide in the second column and in the third column put the name of the person presenting that slide. Memorize it and color code it. Print it out and put it somewhere visible in case you get lost. Here’s an example from a recent workshop we did on Creating Engaging Social Media Content for the Maryland Student Affairs conference.

Tip #3 - In Apple Keynote you can add presenter notes and you can also set up a “current slide” and “next slide” that will display on your macbook so you don’t have to read off paper, notecards or the screen behind you. You can even choose to have time remaining - it’s a perfect way to set up a confidence monitor in your room. Here is a great short and detailed version of how to set it up. Also, bring your own laptop, get to the room at least 15-30 minutes early and set up your laptop to practice. Bring extra batteries, small speakers and your own macbook adapter if needed.

Tip #4 - DON’T USE BULLET POINTS! Now for those of you already getting away from bullets and powerpoint or keynote templates...thank you. For those of you who have not made the transition yet, it’s like removing a bandaid: you have to do it quick and it will be painless with a small learning curve. This summary from a one sheet I created for my “Rethink Your Next Presentation workshop” will quickly give you resources, books and 5 Apple Keynote tips.

Tip #5 - If you do have a handout, it should be no more than one page front and back and pass it out at the very end. The handout should not be your slides because if created & presented right, your slides are useless without you speaking to them. If you do want to share them upload them to Speakerdeck or Slideshare prior to your talk, create a customize link and add it to the one sheet or to your live presentation so the audience can go back to the office and view them, especially if you have specific examples on your slides you want to share.

These 5 tips are certainly in-depth and take courage to try but believe me it is worth it. If I can help now or in the future please do not hesitate to contact me and you can view a few of my recent slidedecks I uploaded to slideshare. Happy conference season!

Kevin O’Connell, Founder - The Niche Movement

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