AOTA Conference 2014 Recap: Part II

Welcome to the Expo!

It’s me again! Back to finish up my long-winded commentary on the 2014 American Occupational Therapy Association conference in Baltimore, MD. If you didn’t check out the first part of this two-part blog post, you can find it here:

This second part is going to be a bit different from the first in that it presents a more pragmatic and practical view of conference and the multitude of opportunities it presents. Again, I’m not a practicing therapist and at this point I’m barely even a student! But conference was a great learning experience and I feel like I gained some valuable knowledge while I was there that I’d like to share.

And so, I present without further ado, AOTA Conference 2014 Recap: Part II!

In addition to the fun, energy and general enjoyment to be experienced at the national conference, there were a number of practical reasons why I was happy I could attend!

They May Pay

So this piece of advice may not apply to everyone, but as an undergrad I was able to get most of my conference costs paid for by my college. I applied for $100, the maximum amount available, and received all of it! This money covered about 80-85% of my conference costs, which was an amazing discount from the $162 dollars I would have paid JUST to register as an attendee JUST for Thursday!

Many schools have programs or money available to students traveling to and attending conferences related to their academic pursuits, and often very few people know about this free money and apply! As a result, there’s a lot of money available to whoever knows to ask. Check out the options at your school and perhaps you can go to conference for free (or nearly free)!

On a related note, I understand that some employers will also pay for employees to go to events like national conferences or educational sessions/seminars in their field. For example, the therapist I currently volunteer with told me that the hospital she worked for would pay her regular wages during the hours she was away from work at an educational seminar. I doubt most companies/businesses would pay for their employees’ ENTIRE attendance fees, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask! As my mom says, the worst thing they can say is no! But if you don’t ask, it’s money you’re guaranteed not to get.

While this therapist made a point of saying that she was glad her employer offered her this benefit, she also noted that one should always check the fine print before accepting this type of offer from an employer. In her case, the hospital would pay for her to attend a continuing education course with the very small stipulation that the employee would then agree to work for the hospital for another year…so beware!

Going with a Group is Great!

As any well-traveled readers will know, there are often great group discounts available on hotels, local attractions and even event registration fees. Signing up and staying with a few friends can help you save money and make sure you have some good people around to check out the conference with!

I went alone to the conference, and it worked for me because the only things I really had to pay for were lodging, gas and food for one person. However, I would really have liked to have a person to explore the city and share my experiences with. Maybe next year!

Another reason for going with a group is that you all can divide and conquer! As I’ll discuss shortly, the conference had hundreds of posters and educational sessions – far too many for one person to take in, even with the “conference planner” app and resources AOTA made available this year. A good strategy is to determine which sessions you simply have to attend, which you would like to attend and which you have a little interest in. Then delegate which person will attend what and plan to share your handouts and knowledge later!


Education Abounds

Experiencing the Expo

Going to the Expo with the pass I earned for my volunteer service was definitely in the top five for best parts of my conference experience. It’s hard to imagine just how many people, booths, resources and vendors there were and how many opportunities there were to learn about virtually every area of practice, modality, demographic and disability.

Seal Swing
Seal-shaped therapy swing? Oh yeah!

There were huge sensory playground setups, booths with Wii’s, TV’s and other electronic equipment for program demos, people selling custom printed compression garments and even a CAR with driving rehabilitation information! There were also many booths advocating various professional organizations and employment options all over the country and in many different settings. In the middle of it all was AOTA’s booth where you could sign up for continuing education credit, buy textbooks, learn more about the AOTA’s various committees and meet organization representatives. There were also numerous demonstrations available for technologies like the Interactive Metronome, kid-friendly seating options and clothing for different sensory needs. And the free samples…just unbeatable. The huge tote bag I received was getting heavier and heavier by the time I left, and it was nowhere near full!

Pearson Booth
Conference attendees examining textbooks at the Pearson booth.
The Southpaw brand sensory playground display was amazing! Everybody was trying out everything!

Another exciting aspect of the Expo was the vendors’ ability to scan the bar code on attendees’ badges and instantly add people to their mailing lists, enter them in drawings or register them for special offers. It was WAY more convenient and “green” than having people write their information down on mailing lists or keep track of multiple raffle tickets for a drawing. I hope they keep this feature around for next year’s conference!

So even if you can’t afford to go to other conference events for the day, get an Expo pass and see what’s out there! You will learn so much about the newest technologies and the current trends in practice, and you might even meet your next employer.

Powerful Poster Sessions

Another cool part of the Expo area was the posters presenting the research and projects from various occupational therapy programs across the country. There were students, professors and healthcare professionals presenting posters on topics ranging from dealing with PTSD in pediatric populations to the impact of a horizontal leadership structure in student occupational therapy organizations. People were free to mill about and check out whatever posters caught their eye, and some posters had huge crowds of people listening to the speaker discuss the results and implications of his or her studies.

Packed Poster
Conference attendees listening to a presenter discuss her research.

I enjoyed seeing the wide variety of interests and practice areas covered by the posters and the open-air format made it feel less formal than in the upstairs presentation and seminar rooms. I tried to engage with people about their research whenever I could, because I’ve been at a science fair and stood beside a poster for an hour, and it’s tough when you feel like nobody is interested or stopping by. The poster session exposed me to some pretty cool research, like the book written by two occupational therapy students from the poster below.

The book was called Melt Like Ice Cream, and it was a very unique approach to helping children with PTSD handle their feelings using progressive muscle relaxation. It used very child-friendly language to direct children to “scrunch their toes in the sand” and “fan their toes out,” ultimately guiding them to “melt like ice cream.” I talked to the authors for a while and I really hope that their plan of getting the book published for use with populations across the world after natural disasters or traumatic events comes to fruition soon!

Melt Like Ice Cream Book
Tessa Newell and Sarah Hernandez wrote the book Melt Like Ice Cream to help children with PTSD cope using progressive muscle relaxation.

Both the Expo booths and the poster sessions are a wonderful opportunity to learn about techniques, modalities, and equipment that you might be able to apply to your practice in the future or that you might want to learn more about. I highly recommend attending


Non-stop Networking

Going to the conference can be the opportunity of a lifetime for anybody who is trying to meet people in their research area of interest, find a new job or make friends with the OT champions they stalk follow online.

Just in my time at the volunteer desk, I worked alongside Susan Lin, the AOTA Director of Research (but I didn’t speak because I was too nervous!), met Erik Johnson and the keynote speakers, helped out the directors of several OT programs and got to rub elbows with the people from the in-city conference coordination team. As the day went on and I assumed my duty as a room monitor, I got to see a presentation by researchers and therapists from USC, one of the top occupational therapy programs in the country! There were so many opportunities to introduce myself to potential future colleagues, movers and shakers in the field and people who have experience in areas of practice I am interested in pursuing.

I was also able to talk with students from other programs on my last morning in Baltimore. During the course of our conversation, it came up that one student had been able to tour Walter Reed, which is basically my life dream. After a couple minutes of chatting about his experience, he offered to email me the information about the person who had set up his tour so that I could “bypass” all of the governmental red tape involved in visiting or volunteering at such a huge hospital! And the subsequent emails we exchanged lead me to my next point…


Making Connections

I was able to network both formally and informally while at the conference. During an impromptu “tweet up” breakfast with Erik Johnson, Monte Bernardo and Travis Mills I briefly spoke with Erik about visiting his workplace in San Antonio while I’m in Texas this summer. I got his business card and followed up with an email after I returned home. Even if it doesn’t work out, I feel good about meeting a therapist whose career path I hope to model mine after and whose brain I can potentially pick in the future!

Breakfast with Celebs
A star-studded breakfast at Edie’s in Baltimore!
From left: Monte Bernardo, me, Major Erik Johnson and Travis Mills

Additionally, in the Baltimore hostel where I stayed, I shared a room with an OT student from North Carolina, where I spend a lot of time visiting family. As it turns out, he will be returning to NC this year for fieldwork, and we planned to meet up and discuss his academic experience and the field in general! I love making new friends, so even this informal opportunity to talk with a future occupational therapist and fellow student is an event I’m looking forward to.

Basically, spend time networking and making contacts and then IMMEDIATELY follow up! You’ll be remembered well for your responsiveness and hopefully make some new friends in the field. Not that I’m suggesting you meet people just to expand your LinkedIn network or get more Twitter followers, but knowing people can never hurt!


EXTRA: Rockin’ the Ribbons

On a less relevant, but there was a kind of ribbon “scavenger hunt” happening throughout the conference. On your badge, you could attach ribbons stating that you were “Kind of a Big Deal,” “Proud AOTA Member,” or “OT Advocate,” among many other things. People were constantly approaching the help desk and asking for this or that ribbon to add to their badge, and I think it was a really fun and uniquely OT way to celebrate a person’s accomplishments in the field! I was only qualified to receive a few ribbons this year, but next year I hope to have a list as long as I am tall! (Which will only take about 6 or so, but you know.)


In sum, going to conference presents a plethora of opportunities for professional development, personal recharging, networking, education and OT advocacy. If you’ve never attended before or are on the fence about attending, I hope my pair of posts about the conference may help convince you that it is definitely worth the time and money!

It was an experience like I’ve never had before, and I hope I’ll be heading to Nashville next year to do it all over again!

6 thoughts on “AOTA Conference 2014 Recap: Part II

  1. Pingback: URL
  2. Bill Smith July 10, 2014 / 4:41 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed your recap of the AOTA Conference. I am doing a top 10 Fact list for my OTA class over what happens at an AOTA conference. Is it okay if I use some of your information for input into my paper. I so look forward to being able to attend a conference some day.

    • lej1123 July 10, 2014 / 4:51 pm

      Hello, Bill! Thank you for reading, I’m really excited that you found my blog!
      I definitely don’t mind if you cite my blog for your report. Here’s a link to the MLA method for citing blog posts (it’s near the end of the page):

      I loved attending the AOTA conference, and I hope you have the opportunity to go someday!

  3. Bill Smith July 10, 2014 / 5:24 pm

    Thank you so much. I do appreciate all the info you have in this blog. Your interest in OT is compassionate to read about.

    • lej1123 July 10, 2014 / 11:00 pm

      Thank you so much! Knowing that I’m writing something you find useful or helpful is a great motivator, and I hope you’ll keep reading! Good luck with your Top 10 report.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s