Conferences in Counseling

Conferences in the field of counseling offer students, practitioners, researchers, and scholars opportunities to gather, interact, and learn within a larger and often diverse environment. Individuals with common interests have formed societies and convened in groups for discussion and debate since the time of Socrates. In the field of psychology, the first formal meeting of professionals was the First International Congress of Psychology held in Paris in 1889, followed closely by the founding of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1892. In 1952, the American Personnel and Guidance Association was founded. Today, these professional societies and associations provide a forum in which members can discuss affairs and training standards of the association, participate in educational events, engage in professional renewal, strengthen professional identity, and make contacts with others who are interested in psychology and counseling.

Conferences in Context

Professional gatherings can stimulate creative and intellectual understanding among individuals. In the United States, the first formal professional conference in psychology was held in 1892 with the founding of the APA. This association met annually for members to exchange ideas, set standards for membership, and attend to the business affairs of the association. In 1952, four independent associations joined forces in Los Angeles to discuss and organize a greater and more unified professional voice for counselors. The four associations included the National Vocational Guidance Association (NVGA), the National Association of Guidance and Counselor Trainers (NAGCT), the Student Personnel Association for Teacher Education (SPATE), and the American College Personnel Association (ACPA). These four organizations became one larger organization, the American Personnel and Guidance Association (APGA). In 1983 APGA became the American Association of Counseling and Development (AACD), and later, in 1992, the AACD changed its name to the American Counseling Association (ACA) to reflect the growing unity of purpose among its members.

Interest in the area of counseling and psychology continues to grow as evidenced by the numerous areas of specialty and subspecialty development within the APA and ACA. Currently there are 54 divisions and 58 state or provincial associations within the APA. The ACA has 19 divisions and 56 branches. Many of these divisions and regional associations also hold annual conferences as a benefit for their members. These conferences in counseling are the organizational descendants of these associations’ historic annual meetings.

Conferences and Other Opportunities for Learning

Many professionals are committed to continuous learning and enhancement of their knowledge base and skills. Today’s counselors and psychologists can seek training from a variety of sources (e.g., conferences, workshops, graduate coursework, postdegree certification, independent study) and in a variety of formats (e.g., in person, online, or hybrid). Although all of these entities provide the opportunity for an instructive experience, conferences are unique in that they (1) typically mandate that participants belong to the sponsoring organization, (2) are assumed to attract persons who share a particular vocation or professional identity, (3) are viewed as a benefit of membership, (4) provide members information regarding the financial status of the organization, (5) afford members access to the governing board, and (6) offer a place to discuss the social relevance and purpose and standards of the organization. There is, at a minimum, an implied, if not overt, agreement that the basic beliefs and purpose of the association draw individuals to attend and participate.

The Functions of Conferences

Conferences in counseling serve both professional and personal functions for counselors. There is, of course, some overlap between these domains, as it is the intent of most associations to serve the needs of individuals by means of the organization’s activities. The professional functions of conferences are characteristically related to the needs of the whole group. For example, such functions may include discussing the financial status, professional identity, mission, and legacy of the association; formulating or executing social or legislative policy; determining training and research standards; and providing the development of the next generation of leaders. The personal functions are typically focused more on the needs of individuals and may include educational sessions, leadership training, networking, mentoring, sponsorship, professional identity development and maintenance, socialization, and conviviality.

Professional Functions

The three primary professional functions of association-sponsored conferences are financial management, articulation of a professional identity, and review of policies and procedure. These functions are administered through a governance structure, e.g., the board of directors for APA or the governing council for ACA. The officers of these governance groups are responsible to the membership at large for both the day-to-day functioning of and long-range planning for the association.

The first professional function, financial management, provides a means for the officers of the association to formally and regularly inform the membership of the financial status of the organization, which may include a review of the annual financial report, efforts at fundraising and endowments, fee and benefit configurations, and expenditures. Although most members do not participate in these sessions, an annual review of the associations’ financial status is typically required by bylaws and is critical to maintaining transparency with respect to the associations’ financial transactions.

The second professional function of conferences, articulation of a professional identity, provides an opportunity for the members to clarify and or strengthen the mission and professional identity of members. These two concepts are inexorably linked, as the mission of any association defines the professional behaviors and therefore identity of its members. From time to time, the governance officers of an association identify a theme or issue that is, or has the potential to be, critical to a majority of the membership. An example of this type of conference programming occurred when the counseling psychology division of the APA held four national conferences; these were at Northwestern University in 1951, at the University of Wisconsin’s Greyston Center in 1964, at Atlanta in 1987, and at Houston in 2001. These four conferences, along with the APA’s 1973 Vail conference, have provided a definition, mission, and training standards for counseling psychologists.

In the late 1970s the APGA (now ACA) sponsored a committee to investigate the need for a national accrediting agency for counselors. Over a period of 2 to 3 years, representatives from the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES), the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), and other divisions met at national and regional conferences and determined that such a body was necessary and viable. This agency, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), was founded in 1981 and continues today to set the educational and institutional requirements for counseling programs at the master’s and doctoral levels.

As agents and advocates of change, counselors and psychologists take an active role in social and political discussions that affect their clients, profession, and general human well-being. The third professional function of conferences, reviewing policies and procedures, affords participants a wide array of opportunities and options with respect to the type and level of involvement in policies and legislation that could potentially impact the profession. Members may also focus on the internal policies and politics of the association. This type of involvement is often associated with the development of the next generation of leaders with the particular association.

Personal Functions

Conferences are a gathering of people who are seeking both professional and personal connections. The personal functions of conferences typically center on the individual’s desire for educational, mentoring, networking, and socializing contacts. Participants typically attend conferences seeking some form of continuing education or enhancement of skill. Professional associations call for peer-reviewed educational sessions, papers, and workshops. National and international conferences offer a plethora of opportunities to enhance one’s knowledge or learn something completely new. Many conferences offer different tracks or themes from which participants may choose. Tracking also allows persons with shared interest (e.g., research findings, new practice approaches) to focus their interests and perhaps meet other professionals with whom they may collaborate.

Conferences are a great benefit to the membership, as many members reconnect with faculty or former peers from institutions of higher learning. Most professional counselors and psychologists have received or are receiving their formal training in these types of institutions, and many conference participants continue their affiliations with universities as either faculty or students. This affiliation provides a ready-made opportunity for mentoring and sponsorship of colleagues and students. Research findings in the area of mentoring identify a multitude of benefits derived from the personal and professional sponsorship of one’s mentor in informal settings such as conferences and the socializing that accompanies them.

The personal and social contacts made during conferences can enrich the personal and professional lives of attendees. Conferences provide a setting for the exchange of ideas, information, employment opportunities, and policies. Individuals can be with subgroups of the association that may have a formal meeting or contact only once a year, or they can sample from a wide variety of areas. It is important to recognize that conferences are a blend of the personal and professional aspects of the individuals who attend that particular conference.


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