I am writing this reflection on my first day back to work following the ACPA22 Convention in St. Louis. Like many of you, I was personally uncertain of what it would be like to return to in-person professional development, networking, and community as the world and higher education still grapple with the COVID-19 health pandemic. Just as the convention was beginning, many locations were ending mask mandates. While the Omicron variant was no longer at peak, we were still experiencing high rates of positive cases of the viruses and all-to-many folks were still dying. Packing to get on an airplane seemed strange, and then actually getting on the airplane was a complete out of body experience. Maybe it was hyperventilation from trudging through the airport to catch my flight with a thick KN-95 mask on, but it was more likely my anxiety that I was once again traveling and heading to a gathering with not just hundreds but thousands of other people.
For months ahead of convention, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be back in person. I had grown accustomed to developing relationships over the Zoom screen. Those who know me best will understand when I say my introverted self was content with not going back to an in-person experience. Even though I had a role in deciding we would hold the ACPA22 Convention in St. Louis as planned, rather than a second year of virtual programming, I will admit that I was nervous, anxious, and pessimistic. During the health pandemic, I was starting to convince myself that entirely virtual experiences might be our future. With the right infrastructure, virtual gatherings are certainly less expensive to attend and can cost less to implement. In transparency, ACPA financially netted as much profit during the ACPA21 virtual convention as we do most in-person conventions, so affordability of virtual offerings is a major bonus in comparison. And for this introvert, conventions can be exhausting. I was not nearly as tired after the 3-weeks of online engagement during the ACPA21 virtual convention as I am after spending the week in St. Louis. Score another point for virtual.
Today, I feel differently. Why? Because I was with “my people,” my ACPA people. I don’t get to be around those people when I go to the grocery store, to pick-up take out from my local favorite restaurant, or when folks are muted and off-camera during Zoom meetings. Their and my wholeness cannot be captured by even the best ring lighting or fancy background scene. But to be in person, even masked and with some physical distancing, we could feel the exuberance, the love, the joy, and the passion in a way that the best camera angle could never provide. Having now been back together in St. Louis, I can wholeheartedly say that I was surprised by how much my head, my heart, and my soul needed to be in this connection space again. Although the masks made it a bit tougher to recognize faces that I had not seen in at least two years, the joy and celebration experienced by all in attendance was nothing short of magical and memorable. I would be unable to count the number of people I heard talking about how much they needed to be back in our community. What I didn’t know was how badly I needed it too.
From now forward, when I experience folks expressing that virtual is our future, I will be tremendously skeptical because we humans, thinkers, feelers, and lovers, in all our complexities, need personal interactions with people who connect with our values and our fullness. We need people who will celebrate us, challenge us, and go through the tough things in life with us. In these moments together – in real life – we transcend and transform into more full versions of ourselves, rather than as a transaction in a small box on a screen. When I was engaging with folks throughout convention, I heard countless stories of people brought to tears because of how much it meant to be back together in-person in St. Louis. I heard folks sharing deeply personal reflections and pain they experienced over the past two years that could now be released into a community of healing and care. I witnessed many who said they felt refilled enough to go back to campus and back to work reenergized to take on our increasingly challenging work.
Virtual and hybrid experiences are certainly here to stay, and this introvert welcomes the increased attention on how technology can be used for good. But the last week or so at the ACPA22 Convention in St. Louis have shown me the overwhelming power of community and that we are stronger and more vibrant when we come together to support, cherish, and celebrate each other. If you were not able to join us, we missed you and hope you will connect with someone from ACPA22 to let us share a little of our overflowing hearts and minds with you soon. And hopefully again, in-person, in New Orleans for the ACPA23 Convention (26-29 March 2022).
Chris Moody, Ph.D.
ACPA Executive Director