Since the fall of 2012, I have participated in the most important events in my career so far; my local design & tech meetups.
My first meetup was for Design Orlando at a local web/app consulting shop. Before this, I had had no face-to-face interaction to discuss various topics of the web industry and was seriously lacking in a connection to professionals in my area. How was I expected to jump into the real world in just a few years without any idea what it looked like to work in that space? It felt like a serious misstep in my education so thus far. So for this first meeting, I sat and listened to a short talk by a brilliant designer, Justin Mezzel, who worked in the very shop we were all sitting in, and even commented a few times in the discussion afterwards. Anyone watching the event from afar might have thought it to be pretty mediocre, but in my mind, it was a spectacular display of the insight my area had to offer. It inspired me just as much the image of my first hand-coded website to keep pursuing a career in this industry and showed me that others are just as passionate about their jobs as I was.
My participation in these events snowballed after the introductory experience. I am a consistent attendee of three monthly meetups, including Design Orlando, Orlando Tech Meetup, and EdTech Orlando, and I continue to explore other opportunities as new groups pop up in the Orlando area. I have even participated in a Startup Weekend for EdTech startups and a mini-conference called BarCamp. As I continue to attend these events, I meet more people, offer more opinions, and become a familiar face for the local professionals. It has been and will continue one of the greatest advantages I have over my fellow college students. I could spend all my hours poring over a design or new web app idea, but when I graduate, I have links to my local industry and others around the country because I have those experiences that have honed my people skills and helped me mature beyond the experience a classroom can provide.
Most people go to the "rock-star" conferences to learn, connect, and have a good time with others in their field of work, but as a student, attending anything outside one's area means the extra cost of gas/flights and a hotel room on top of the triple-digit price tag for a ticket to these great events. Not many conferences will offer student discounts or scholarships, which means missing out on fantastic opportunities to learn and connect with others. Meetups are free and are attended by a lot of the same people you will see at the big conferences. Even if you can afford these mega meetups because you are an industry professional, lend a little of your time to attend a meetup in your area, or even start one, to create great discussions and contribute more informed society. Whether you are learning, teaching, or just hanging out and drinking, these meetups are a highly rewarding experience for anyone who attends because they are out of their homes, exploring their city, and interacting with new people that could change their lives for the better, without paying a dime. I suggest heading to Meetup.com right now to search for something that dons your interest and give it a shot. Give me a shout @HipsterBrown if you find it works out in your favor.