The Promise of Professional Organizations

Maybe you’ve already learned about the importance of joining associations and attending conferences in your current or previous line of work. If you haven’t, then certainly there’s a world of connections and learning opportunities just waiting to be discovered. If you have, then consider your student status a great chance to join new professional organizations and attend conferences at special rates.

Student Membership

There are two slightly different forms of student membership. In some cases, you simply join as a member of the larger organization, such as the American Library Association (http://www.ala.org). Watch out for stipulations about full-time status or starting a new, not renewal, membership to qualify for the student rates. For other organizations, you join a separate student branch of the parent group, such as the Public Relations Student Society of America (http://www.prssa.org) sponsored by the Public Relations Society of America (http://www.prsa.org). There are national, state, and in some cases, even regional groups for almost every profession you might pursue.

To give you an idea of how much money a student member can save on membership, here are a few examples of actual dues costs. A new professional member of the Society of Women Engineers (http://www.swe.org) must pay $120 for her first year’s dues; a new student member pays only $20. A first year member of the American Psychological Association (http://www.apa.org) pays $62, while an undergraduate student member pays $27. Dues for new professional members of the Association for Computing Machinery (http://www.acm.org) are $99, and student dues are $42.

Your membership dues could even end up paying you back if your organization has its own members-only scholarship program. The Council for Exceptional Children offers several scholarship awards to junior, senior and graduate members (http://www.cec.sped.org/ab/Student_Awards_2003.pdf). Kappa Delta Pi, an honor society for future educators, also offers scholarships for all levels of college education (http://www.kdp.org/scholarships/list.php). Scholarship information is usually available in organizational publications and websites.

Why Join?

Even at cheaper rates, when you’re already paying for tuition and books, you might think it’s not worth adding membership dues to your expenses. So why should you? An often-stated reason is that it will look good on a resume, but there’s so much more that you can gain from joining a professional organization.

Publications

Some memberships include free publications while others offer discounted rates on their magazines, journals or books. These publications will help you stay abreast of the latest developments in your field, and they might even help you with class assignments. Why go to the library or search online when you have the journal delivered right to your home? Certainly, there’s little time for leisure reading when you’re immersed in schoolwork, but think of how great it will sound in a future interview when you can reference the leading publication in your field.

Online Benefits

Almost if not every professional organization has a presence on the web, and many of these websites have special members-only areas that increase their value. For instance, there might be a members-only job board or members-only access to a magazine. List-servs and website message boards create a sense of community among current and future professionals in a field. For instance, the National Council of Teachers of English has a list-serv (http://www.ncte.org/member/community/111612.htm) that creates dialogue focusing on everything from concrete teaching ideas to theoretical discussions of reading and writing instruction. List-servs and message boards can be a valuable part of any student’s professional development. While you want to make sure you’re following any posted rules like replying directly to an individual member rather than the entire group when appropriate, don’t be afraid of joining the conversation. Online communities are typically welcoming and you will find colleagues who value your fresh perspective.

On-Campus Opportunities

If there is a chapter of a professional organization on your campus, consider becoming an active member. Local chapter members of the Society of Women Engineers plan social, service and educational events. The American Medical Student Association (http://www.amsa.org) has groups that promote professional development and improving health care at both the pre-med and medical school level. If you are interested in giving back to the community, student groups will often plan volunteer opportunities that use the unique skills of their members. So a group of future accountants will do taxes for low-income residents, and the pre-dental club will make a presentation about good dental hygiene in local elementary schools. Such projects benefit both the recipients and the students who are gaining hands-on experience.

You can gain valuable skills by taking a leadership position within these organizations. Of course, there are always elected positions like President and Secretary, but even if you don’t see yourself in one of these larger roles, there are other ways to get more involved. If there is a project you wish your group would do, offer to chair a committee to get it accomplished. If you make websites in your free time, volunteer to be the club webmaster. However, even if you don’t have an official title, don’t think that you can’t make an impact on the group. Simply being an active, committed member who attends meetings and events will help make the organization strong and allow you to get the most from your membership.

Joining a campus student professional organization is also a great networking opportunity and a chance to learn from upper-level students in your field. Do you want the dirt on the best journalism professors? Ask the students who have been there before you. Do your friends and family just not understand the frustrations you face in your chosen field? Go to a meeting full of people who can commiserate with you and offer support and answers. Is it time to start your job search? Encourage your organization to have a resume workshop or a panel of potential employers.

Conferences and Conventions

Just when you thought you couldn’t get more from your association membership, conventions and conferences offer untold opportunities. Conference registration fees are typically reduced for student members. If you’re attending as a member of an on-campus chapter, your school might even offer assistance in paying for registration costs. While this is helpful for the travel budget at all levels, if you live in Wisconsin and attending a national convention in Orlando is beyond your finances, a student registration fee for a state conference an hour away can make it quite a deal for the information you’ll take away. You’re sure to find inspiration from keynote speeches and break-out sessions, pick up some resources from the exhibition hall and network with potential future co-workers. Convention and conference attendees also take away a greater sense of being part of something larger than themselves – part of a profession.

Advancing Your Profession

Once you’ve sensed that you’re part of a whole, an intangible benefit of joining a professional organization is the potential for advancing your field. In some cases, this is done on the organizational level with congressional lobbying or a nationwide campaign to bring new students into your chosen profession. At other times, it’s much more personal and means that you are contributing ideas and engaging in dialogues that will change the face of teaching or architecture or whatever your passion might be.

The Bottom Line

Overall, when you add up the advantages, it’s easy to see why there should be a place for membership dues in your educational budget. How else can you learn from professionals in your field, make valuable contacts, build your resume, and become part of a larger community for less than the cost of many textbooks?

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