As grad students, we have endless opportunities to access educational opportunities including courses, guest lectures, and conferences around the world. As I mature in my academic life, I am very selective of where I go to conferences, and for what purpose.
The first most important deciding point is the topic. I realize that I am extremely naive to the research world, and can easily be influenced by one speaker. But I am very aware that there is only one thing at this point in my life that really moves me to the edge of my seat: passion. I do not think many key note speakers step up to the podium understanding their potential influence on the “youngins” in the audience. I do not look for ground breaking research, or p-values to blow me away. I look for a presentation style that cries “I love my job, and I love what I do!!!” Perhaps it is my background as a mental health professional, but I am pretty good at weeding out those who pretend to possess such zeal for life/career.
Recently, I attended the International Quality of Life conference in Denver, Colorado. The topic was very much in line with my research, and the speakers had impressive research backgrounds. Every day for five days I entered the conference with an open mind and left with more knowledge. However, I found passion in an unusual place: outside of the walls of where knowledge was being shared in the conference center.
Every day, I walked five blocks back to my hotel, through the heart of downtown Denver. Denver is renowned for its thin air, but less known for the very prominent homeless population which resides along many of the busy streets. For the first day I observed them from a far, but as the numbers increased, I became increasingly perplexed by what kind of system was set up to support them. I “Googled” local mental health and welfare supports, and found that Denver was teaming with some of the most advanced social services in the country. So why were so many not benefiting from these services? As a result of my curiosity, my next walk of five blocks to the conference took three hours. I sat and talked to many individuals and just chatted about their situations and the barriers which prevented them from receiving help.
A particular woman will forever be in my mind for a while. She was slightly older than I was, but we both had two young children. For an hour, we talked about our kids and what it was like to be a mom. Every day, she had the same joys that I did- waking up to two smiling faces, and watching them explore and try to master their new world. The only problem was that she was waking up in a shelter with them. She had no other family, no father to support her children, no job, and an alcohol addiction that made her road to recovery inconsistent and arduous. The American system is set up in such a way that those most vulnerable often slip through the system. Without insurance and a fixed address, the “SYSTEM” was extremely difficult to navigate. This woman asked me why I was here. I told her I was here for a Quality of Life conference. She laughed and asked me what Quality of Life was. Knowing that there were 600 health professionals and some of the greatest world researchers trying to answer that question in the hotel conference center behind me, I threw the question back at her and asked her what Quality of Life meant to her?
Her answer surprised me. She said that her quality of life would be the highest if she felt that someone cared. She was not looking for money or home, but she was looking for someone to guide her in a direction that would inspire hope, empowerment, and well-being. She wanted the skills and resources to become a great mother and employer so that she could provide for her children. She was hopeless and looking for a lit path to guide her. She was motivated, but directionless. Just as I sat for the last few days looking for academic direction and inspiration, she was looking for direction and inspiration in life. She was looking for someone to believe in her.
I met many other homeless individuals, who each had their own story and aspirations to improve their lives. Their goals and dreams were clear, but their plan to get there was disjointed. They too were motivated but directionless.
On my plane ride home, I could not stop thinking about how lucky we are as students to have the ability to acquire knowledge. We learn how to ask pertinent research questions and develop strategies to answer these questions. The people I met had some of the most interesting questions, but no ability to answer them. Perhaps it was the choices that they made in the past that led them to this point, or a system that is unable to support some of the most vulnerable. Regardless of how the people I met arrived at this point in their lives, they were still individuals with dreams, goals, and aspirations. They need someone to help answer their questions.
I left Denver more passionate than ever. I left Denver knowing that my clinical roots were deeply anchored in the mental health community, and my career would be much more meaningful if led in this direction. My next conference is in Perth, Australia, in January 2012. It is a statistical methodology conference. I attended the same conference last year in Copenhagen. It was small, but there were 150 passionate people who attended and inspired me to learn this new area of research. They motivated me to come back and this time, and I have a much clearer focus about how I want to apply this knowledge.
I returned to academia for very specific reasons, but after this trip, I realized that the stress of school, assignments, comprehensive exams, and thesis writing had blurred my reasons for doing so. Conferences are intended to network, disseminate knowledge, and stimulate new research ideas. The International Quality of Life conference was no different. It was an excellent conference filled with the most brilliant minds who offered the “youngins” lots of knowledge and opportunities. My learning need in that sense was met, but the people I met in the streets of Denver fuelled my passion for what I do. This energy will be the most important factor to enable me to finish this graduate life journey. For that, I am thankful to them and wish them the best of luck navigating a system so complex it is not fair.