The Course of Reason

My Experience at the 2010 Student Leadership Conference

June 1, 2011

UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers Director of Activities Stef McGraw recounts her experience at last year's Student Leadership Conference

Interested in attending the 2011 Student Leadership Conference on June 23-26? Sign up here. Travel grants are available.

When I found out last year that I was the only person from my group, the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI), who would be able to make it to the annual CFI Student Leadership Conference, I wasn’t sure quite what to think. While I was looking forward to it, I was also nervous, as my participation in the secular movement had been limited to my one year in UNIFI, and I wasn’t sure what to expect from spending three days with a group of strangers. Would I be informed enough to hold conversations with them? Would they reject me if I weren’t?

To my pleasant surprise, it ended up being a weekend that I didn’t want to leave. I instantly realized that I didn’t need to worry about sitting in a corner by myself all weekend; everyone there was so friendly and welcoming. It was really cool to be able to meet people from all over the country (and Canada) who all had something in common: our lack of adherence to religious dogma. Because being a secularist isn’t always easy in our everyday lives, we were able to immediately connect with our shared experiences. While the people we interact with day-to-day tend to be by and large religious, the SLC served as a sort of safe haven where we could speak our minds freely, even if we disagreed. I still interact with the people I met there on Facebook, and it’s a cool feeling to know that I have a network of freethinking friends all over the country.

Besides the social aspect that likely applies to all conference attendees, meeting and talking with fellow student leaders also had more personal significance for me. As I stated before, I was the only person from UNIFI who attended the conference, and I wasn’t entirely sure if I could handle the responsibility of representing my group well without the team of fellow officers I usually had as my backup. As cheesy as it sounds, the weekend turned out being a growing experience for me. I got over my inhibitions and learned to make conversation with complete strangers, and by the end of the weekend I had developed enough confidence to hold my own in the religious/political/philosophical discussions inevitably taking place.

But of course, there was more to the conference than just conversing; every day was packed with fascinating talks and workshops with topics ranging from the science illiteracy problem in our country, to better understanding biblical scholarship, to how to more effectively plan and organize events. I came back from the weekend feeling like I had a whole arsenal of new knowledge and gained perspective at my disposal. I was both more informed on scientific/religious/political issues as well as on how to better run my group and become a more effective student leader.

I can say with confidence that attending the leadership conference has not only benefitted me, but my group as well. For instance, while I personally gained a sense of security in my ability to represent UNIFI, the group has gotten more publicity in secular community as well. In addition, the group-running ideas I gained from both the talks and from chatting with other student leaders have allowed UNIFI to improve on some of our already successful events, such as Blasphemy Rights Day and Darwin Week. And of course, being more knowledgeable on topics that affect freethinkers is always important, as it gives the group the ability to make improvements on what its focus is and how it conducts itself (I know for UNIFI, this conference started a productive conversation on the pros and cons of the more outspoken atheist approach versus the “coexist-y” one.)

Let me further illustrate what I think about the Student Leadership Conference: this past semester, I wasn’t actually an officer for UNIFI, because I was studying abroad. I interviewed for this coming year via Skype, and then was offered the Director of Activities position. The very day that occurred, I sent an e-mail to our new president with some related information as well as this: “I call dibs to the CFI conference this summer!” Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the end of June so I can attend more intriguing talks and of course, reconnect with the friends I made last summer.


About the Author: Stef McGraw

Stef McGraw's photo
Stef McGraw is a Campus and Community Organizer at the Center for Inquiry. She has degrees in philosophy and Spanish from the University of Northern Iowa, where she first got involved in the freethought movement through the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers




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