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Last month, I had the wonderful recommendation to attend the IMPACT National Conference in Virginia. A four day, action-packed event held annually around the country. This year, the service focused conference was held at the University in Virginia in Charlottesville and crammed with workshops, keynotes and panels supplemented by an “off schedule” agenda, which allowed for numerous interactions with talented students, higher education professionals and non-profit workers. All this in the beautiful grounds of the UNESCO World Heritage campus.

IMPACT Conference is historically the largest national gathering of student leaders, administrators, faculty, and non-profit staff committed to engaging students in service, activism and advocacy. It has the aim of providing educators and professionals with the tools to strengthen their communities through service, action, and advocacy. I went in expecting to feel out of place but at the same time ready to learn a lot about the social change movement in the US higher education sector. I could not have come away happier.

Within moments of arriving at the conference I was blown away by quite how genuine the motivations of those organizing and attending the conference were and how EVERYBODY there came with an open mind and not committed to spreading a certain agenda. Similarly the conference structure embodied this vibe with a multitude of opportunities for all attending. This was perhaps best demonstrated in the variety of sessions where everyone was given a platform to speak and host sessions from student leaders to national charities such as Oxfam and UNICEF. For the most part sessions were open ended, dynamic, engaging and founded around sharing ideas. People were genuinely interested and very few talks had an overtly “salesy” theme behind them.

I found all of the advice both insightful, engaging and in a lot of ways moving and powerful. This is in part due to the conference organizers doing an amazing job of linking the event together with dynamic and inspiring keynote speakers and well thought out networking time. I enjoyed my time immensely in Charlottesville and I was left with a striking sense of community that I’ve not often felt. I was blown away by the power of everyone’s personal stories and the practical tips and advice on everything from student leadership, risk management, collaborative partnerships and ethical practice. It was a validating experience to realize that the time we, at Choose a Challenge, put into ensuring our leadership program not only supports but offers value to our leaders, that our events adhere to the gold standard of adventure travel safety and our ethics and values are at the heart of our practices is not an under appreciated endeavor. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that what you stand for is important, but this week reminded me clearly.

Top takeaways have become very blasé as of late but for those considering ROI and whether it’s worth it for your organization or yourself individually, here are my biggest takeaways;

  • It’s a genuinely inspiring conference. If you need a pick me up, this will do it.

  • Respect, mutual growth and transparency are the cornerstone of a good partnership.

  • Remember there is never just a single perspective and be wary that stories tend to dwell on the differences rather than the similarities.

  • It’s hard to categorize the traits of a solid Alternate Break program and analyzing the travel trends only goes so far. Numbers say so much but liability, risk and ethical concerns vs offering impactful leadership experiences and the ability to actually make a positive difference is at the heart of it.

  • Collaboration means different things to different people and needs to be defined clearly to be a success.

  • I’ve always believed youth engagement to be a vitally important part of non-profit strategy, however, it was eye opening seeing the creative ways causes involve students in advocacy and campaigning far beyond just fundraised dollars.

  • A desire to create social change is a hugely cohesive environment to work in.

  • And as ever… the US higher education market is an incredibly varied landscape.

What I can say for sure after my first experience at the Impact Conference is that it has changed my praxis on what conferences can be capable of and that Impact is certainly a very special community to be part of. From the Choose a Challenge angle, I look forward to working with the team in our Brooklyn HQ to ensure we continue our mission of offering fulfilling travel opportunities which reach far beyond the individual and will continue to do so in a transparent manner while working alongside the amazing programming already available for students.

I’ll also certainly be making my way down to Arizona in 2020. Feel free to reach out if you are planning on doing the same. Find out more, submit a workshop of register yourself here;

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Simon Varley