I am sitting at a deli in downtown Atlanta on a chilly Friday. I am attending the AAC&U Annual Meeting and it is time for lunch. As you can tell by the picture I had a warm bowl of chicken noodle soup and I got a Diet Coke (after all this is Atlanta, home of Coke). This morning I enjoyed breakfast at my hotel (one that I did not pay for out of my pocket). I got here using a plane ticket paid for by my employer, rode the MARTA train, attended the conference, and tweeted about my experience on a phone that was subsidized by my employer. Throughout the conference I will enjoy complimentary snacks at a reception, be provided unlimited tea, coffee, water, and soda, and given lots of resources I get to take home. I have to admit, it’s pretty great.
There is no doubt. I live a life of privilege. I enjoy a nice salary, drive a late model car, and own the nicest house I have ever lived in. But I also work a lot and the work can be mentally taxing. I guess on a given week I put in 50+ hours of work in all of it’s forms so I am not ashamed at my compensation or the extras that come with it. That’s not the point of this blog post.
The point is it was not always that way. I grew up a poor, working class kid. For a good portion of my life my parents worked hourly positions like dialysis tech, meat packing worker, waitress, warehouse manager. None of these jobs came with any extras. Just a paycheck and the same location everyday.
Privilege can take many forms. Of course the most egregious is that privilege is a form of institutionalized racism and classism designed to suppress certain citizens, usually women and people of color. This post is not really about that either. Its really about the financial freedom and message free coffee sends.
Free coffee tells me that my privilege extends beyond the benefits of my salary because I can amplify these benefits by not having to pay for these things myself. These are less expenses to my bottom line my working class parents did not enjoy. They had to take their lunch everyday, buy their coffee from the food truck, pay for their own transportation to and from work, and honestly just stay in one place. In addition to the coffee and hotel room I get to travel all over the country and expand my horizons, perspectives, and network.
So why is this important? Well, we get to be where many of our students want to go and we have a responsibility to get the most from this opportunity and transfer our learning and capacity to help the students who essentially pay to send us here. Too often I see a willingness by my higher education peers taking advantage of this generosity and privilege. They attend a small fraction of the conference, don’t network like they should, or simply blow things off. They attend sessions and are constantly answering emails or stepping out to take phone calls.
I will call myself out, I was one of those people for a while. And there are times I can still be that guy. I had a sense of entitlement that I deserve these perks because I had made it. About two years ago I was at a Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation meeting and had just finished lunch. As I excused myself to the Men’s room I overheard a couple of the servers talking. One said to the other, “can you believe all these rich folk are always throwing away good food? Damn.” For the record, guilty as charged. I had just let them pick up a plate with both chicken and pasta still on the plate. That is when I decided that not only do I need to be more grateful for these extras; I also need to be more engaged and intentional when I attend a conference. So now I live my conference and professional life by these seven conference promises:
1. Even if I don’t have to I always look for the best value for my travel, lodging, and meals when traveling. There is no need to max out the travel request when a lower cost option is available.
2. I try to present at every conference I attend. I learned a long time ago I get more value when I am adding value. Presenting is a good way to do that.
3. I try to comment or engage at every session I attend. The presenters are looking for it and it forces me to pay attention.
4. I write a report after every trip or meeting and outline take-aways and next steps. I am getting better at this. I admit I can struggle here.
5. I never take more than I need when offered complimentary stuff. I don’t take promo items I don’t need, I don’t over indulge.
6. I tip the servers. I usually leave a few bucks under my banquet plate, in my room for the room keepers, and to other service workers. If I get these extras then I should leave a little extra for them.
7. I try to use public transportation, hotel shuttles, and stay places where things like WiFi are included. Although I can expense them, why? If there is a lower cost alternative that works too.
Look, am I perfect – NO! I have a lot to learn and yes, I take the occasional ed block off if I am full of ideas and need a break. Nothing wrong with self-care as well. But when I take the break I try to fill that time productively. Because we owe it to everyone who got us here. And we owe it to those we serve. By being better takers we can become better makers.