Student blog: Intimidated by conferences? Take part and join the fun!
Ocean Cheung is the Managing Director and Co-founder of Startup Interns, where he connects international students to Queensland’s tech startups to accelerate students’ employability and entrepreneurial mindsets.
I like going to conferences. I believe it is an awesome professional development opportunity that students shouldn't miss out on. Going to conferences for free is even better. In this article, I will outline hints and tips on how to attend expensive conferences without paying much money.
1. Be a speaker
If you are doing great things for your community or in your industry, particularly if you are running a startup or a social enterprise, apply to be a speaker. You may not be the keynote speaker, but it is worth trying to join a panel discussion. Writing a speaker proposal/EOI is as same as applying for a job - it is all about alignment and culture fit. In my case, I work closely with the international education sector and the startup eco-system in Australia, so I always put my hand up to present topics that are relevant to providing a student perspective.
Likewise, if you are involved in any type of research project, why not present your results at a research conference? Don’t let the word “research” intimidate you, because preliminary results are commonplace at research conferences. You can present what you did in your honours project, a summer research project or even an undergraduate research course. In your particular field of research, there are conferences which your supervisors or lecturers regularly attend to stay relevant in the field. Show your passion and politely ask if you could come along to learn. My colleague Rainie was surprised by how willing her supervisor was to fund her attendance at a national neuroscience conference and even present a poster to a community of scientists!
2. Apply for grants
While free conference tickets can sometimes come from a good relationship with your connections, sometimes you also need to take the initiative to apply for these opportunities. For example, Rainie applied for an employability grant from University of Queensland (UQ) to attend the Australian Conference of Undergraduate Research.
Scholarships and travel grants to undergraduate conferences are often available from educational institutions to encourage student participation in extracurricular activities. However, you do need to show them you have something to bring to the table or are able to develop professional skills in these conferences. Be passionate and genuine, have a solid proposal and keep trying every year!
3. Represent your educational institution or organisation
Is your educational institution a member of any organisations that hold conferences? Check out their website to see when student representatives are being recruited. This can be a regional, educational or athletic conference that needs student representatives. Rainie and I first met at the Council of International Students Australia (CISA) National Education Conference. She was representing UQ and I was representing Study Queensland. She said she applied for an interview, expressed her genuine passion for international education advocacy, and she ended up getting her name badge as a student representative of UQ.
In my case, I was one of the Queensland International Student Advisory Panel (QISAP) members of Study Queensland. Study Queensland sponsored 12 QISAP members to the CISA Conference and the International Education Training (IET) Summit last year in Cairns. I highly recommend you join professional and industrial associations to take advantage of these opportunities, especially while you are still a student!
4. Be a volunteer
Organising a conference needs plenty of resources and people. At the event preparation, conference organisers are often on the lookout for volunteers to assist in social media management, content writing, graphic design or even research/ data analysis on performance. If you are studying Event Management or Business, these opportunities are perfect for you. However, some of these tasks are less technical. As long as you are passionate about the conference topics and willing to learn and commit, you can always find a way to involve as a volunteer in exchange for free entry.
Alternatively, ask around about whether you can help with the conference on the day. Skills like photography, videography, logistics (e.g. helping out registration, facilitating cafe sessions etc.) or drawing visual minutes and translations are really helpful. Please let the conference organiser know at least a month beforehand if you are willing to offer a helping hand. I was volunteering at the Routes Asia Conference last year, where I facilitated a Q&A session.
5. Show your influence
If you are a micro-influencer, push yourself to do some cross-promotion/marketing to gain a free ticket. For instance, I wrote an article about Startup Impact Summit at StartmeupHK Festival 2019. I didn’t get a free ticket because the organisers already offer really good deals for students, instead I got some freebies because of this article.
6. Just ask around!
Last but not least, ask around if you can join a conference! People understand you are a student and they are generally happy to help.
I was lucky enough to take part in IDP's Australia International Education Conference (AIEC) last year. Since I volunteered to facilitate a cafe session there, THE PIE NEWS (one of the sponsors) sponsored my day pass for the four day conference. After that, I emailed the event host — International Education Association of Australia and IDP and asked if they can sponsor me for the rest of the conference, and they did!
Here’s what I wrote in my email:
“The PIE sponsors my day registration for Wednesday 10 October. However, my education provider and Study Queensland did not have the budget to sponsor my flights and I need to pay for myself. I was wondering if IEAA can sponsor me full registration (9, 11 & 12 Oct) to make my flight tickets more worthwhile! In return, I would like to write a reflection report or articles for the AIEC & IEAA, and share it with my network. Please let me know if there are things I can contribute too (happy to volunteer).”
Afterwards, I asked my workplace to sponsor my flight tickets, and they did that too! Thus, it is worth it to ask around, take the initiative, and hustle people for free tickets!
Attending conferences are great opportunities to showcase your work, connect with like-minded people, stay updated with the industry, learn new skills, be inspired and have fun! Again, don’t miss out by not taking advantage of our tips for attending a conference for free and making the most of your experience!
7. Where can you find conferences?
I like to use this website: https://10times.com/ to find interesting conferences around the world.