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Being First: Two First-Timers Meeting experiences

Rosemary Baltcha, Personnel Manager, Fresno County Department of Public Works, Fresno, California, and member, APWA Diversity Committee; Rebecca Bilderback, P.E., Civil Engineer III, City of Olathe, Kansas, and member, Women in Public Works Subcommittee

As reported in the November 2007 APWA Reporter, the First-Timers Meeting was an unprecedented success at this year's APWA Congress in San Antonio. This year's meeting broke the attendance record with over 340 new Congressgoers. The eleventh annual meeting was once again coordinated by the Diversity Committee and provided a valuable crash course to new Congressgoers on the who, what, when, where and why of the APWA Congress activities. This month, first-time Congress attendees Rosemary Baltcha, a new member of the Diversity Committee, and Rebecca Bilderback, a new member of the Women in Public Works Subcommittee, describe their First-Timers Meeting experiences.

Rosemary's experience
Being first is often a very exciting experience. Of course this depends on the event, but in most cases it is memorable. I experienced a number of firsts when I attended the APWA International Public Works Congress & Exposition in September, beginning with the First-Timers Meeting breakfast which I experienced from several different perspectives and ending with the Congress Reception and Banquet. I had an opportunity to personally interact with Kaye Sullivan, although I had met her previously at a Chapter Leaders training event. As a member of the national Diversity Committee I would actually be working with her on a regular basis. Kaye is part wizard, part psychic and part princess. Due to my previous, minimal contact with her, I was not a bit surprised by her mystical and magical powers. As a new member of the Diversity Committee, Kaye immediately sensed my confusion and helped me to get settled by charging me with my very first task—to pass out diversity stickers to first-time Congress attendees and others who were attending the First-Timers Meeting.

This was a rewarding experience because I got to briefly talk to many newcomers and because it also presented some other special first encounters for me. I met for the first time—although, again, we had phone conversations and a number of e-mail encounters—Augie Chang, outgoing chair of the Diversity Committee. I had been my chapter's diversity liaison the prior year so we had occasion to speak. He graciously invited me to sit at the Diversity Committee table. After putting my things down, I was off to perform my assigned task.

I also met Jennifer Adams, the incoming chair of the Diversity Committee, who was very energetic and gracious and was passing out stickers right next to me. The highlight of my very pleasant task was a personal encounter with Larry Frevert, P.E., incoming APWA President. Mr. Frevert walked up as Jennifer and I passed out stickers. He knew Jennifer and introduced himself to me, not particularly taunting his presidential status (in fact I didn't even know), but more so, he welcomed me and thanked me for performing my particular task. To think the president of a national, world-renowned organization like APWA would take the time to personally talk to me was yet another first.

Inside the breakfast itself everyone was abuzz. Augie Chang welcomed everyone to this First-Timers event and indicated the purpose of the meeting was to promote a feeling of inclusiveness for everyone attending the Congress, to assist them in getting the greatest value from their experience, and to provide them with helpful tips on navigating through the shear vastness of the Congress itself. It was already working for me and I felt somewhat enchanted by my whirlwind morning. Augie thanked Rinker Materials/Hydro Conduit for providing a delicious full breakfast for all of those in attendance at the meeting.

Augie then introduced the members of the current Diversity Committee; Diane Linderman, our liaison to the Board of Directors; President Frevert; and last but certainly not least, APWA's Deputy Executive Director and staff liaison to the national Diversity Committee, the answer lady, Ms. Kaye Sullivan. I have found that if you ask Kaye she will answer, figure out how, find the way, have a wonderful idea, or work some other magic. Anyway it goes and however you look at it, she will get it done or help you get it done. I was fortunate enough to sit by her at the breakfast and have the opportunity to watch her in action (also a first); she was amazing in her ability to coordinate and make everything come together almost seamlessly.

As I sat there watching all the excitement in the room I noticed these really cool APWA magnifying implements on the table. I thought they were "freebies" so I immediately slipped one into my nice, new APWA bag. I heard Kaye as she moved around the room, making things work, express concern that one of her five door prizes was missing. I immediately fessed up, feeling pretty silly and a little guilty. This is where the princess comes in—she was regal in her ability to take back her door prize and not make me feel any worse. We even got a good laugh out of an embarrassing situation (not my first).

At the Diversity Committee meeting later that afternoon I was reluctant as I was attending my first committee meeting and didn't know what to expect. I met the other committee members and we talked about how we would move forward, add value, and be productive as a committee. Fortunately, unlike me, there were a number of experienced and competent members to lead this effort. President Frevert joined us and candidly and sincerely laid out his goals for the upcoming year. His candor and sincerity, along with his very "down to earth" attitude, made me even more eager for the committee to have a positive and noticeable impact. I really want this committee to do something to make Mr. Frevert proud that he selected us as part of his team.

As I attended a number of Diversity Committee-sponsored events and many others that were not, I was amazed at the quality, dynamics, and practical information obtained at every session. The General Sessions brought me to tears, both happy and sad, either because the message was so powerfully poignant or incredibly funny, but either way it was an extremely relevant message. The Diversity Brunch and the Progressive Women in Public Works Breakfast were especially rewarding. I attended my first California Chapter's dinner; several presidential (past, present and future) receptions; the Get Acquainted Party; and the grand finale, the Reception and Banquet—all firsts, all special. I met and talked to others from different states, different countries, and with different backgrounds, all friendly, helpful, but more importantly for me, all with a strong sense of public works and its importance to our everyday lives. They exemplify public works pride.

I have worked in the public works arena for more than 30 years. I've hired engineers, fired engineers, coached and counseled engineers, but I've never been an engineer. I know what they are like as individuals and what it takes to work with them. I know their commitment to improving the infrastructure for all of us and giving us a better world to live in. But, it still made me a little apprehensive, at first, to be in an arena where they were the predominant force and to not be one of them. I was actually the "evil" HR adversary they so often shun.

This was also the case in my chapter, where I am the current vice-president. The only female officer, the only person of color, and almost the only non-engineer, I fit right in. This in and of itself involved a myriad of firsts and plenty for me to deal with, but to top this off I somehow found myself thrust into the national arena. I was on both a national committee and a national subcommittee which provided many more firsts and more than I'd ever bargained for.

Well, I'm here to tell you that all of these firsts have not only fostered my growth, increased my abilities, and defined my strengths but they have been rewarding from an emotional standpoint and have catapulted me into new heights that I never expected I would reach. I have been entrusted as a steward of my chapter, a representative for them at the national level, and have now been asked to provide input on issues that will have an impact nationally. A huge first.

In closing, I must confess that I attended the Congress in Atlanta for one day, as a speaker, and then I left; sprinted would be a better description. I attended the Congress in San Antonio as a full registrant, as a national committee member, as a representative of my chapter, and as a first-time Congress attendee—all firsts, all fulfilling, all rewarding! I thank you APWA for the wake-up call! And, I was very sad to see the Congress end. Can't wait for next year—see you in New Orleans.

Rebecca's experience
As a first-time APWA Congress attendee, I did not know what to expect at the Congress activities and the First-Timers Meeting was no exception. Going into the meeting, I expected to eat a continental breakfast, hear a ten-minute summary of the Congress and get to know the people seated at my table. Fortunately for me and the other first-timers, the First-Timers Meeting delivered much, much more.

The meeting began with an excellent buffet breakfast located in the hallway outside of the meeting room. The potatoes and scrambled eggs, both done up in southern style and spice, were my favorites. The strawberries and biscuits were irresistible too. Thank you Rinker Materials for the hospitality!

Walking into the room, I was greeted by Diversity Committee members and given a diversity sticker. Once inside the already packed room, I was able to navigate to a nearly full table at the perimeter of the room. During breakfast, the room was abuzz with chatter as the first-timers became acquainted with the people around them. At my own table, I got to know a wide group of people including a project engineer from a consulting firm in Arizona, a commissioner from New York and the president of a company in Nevada.

After the initial introductions, members of the Diversity Committee and the APWA Board of Directors provided an in-depth description of the Congress activities to get us up-to-speed. We were informed that the daily General Sessions were open to all attendees and we were encouraged to attend them to hear each day's unique motivational speaker. The daily educational sessions were described as an opportunity for us to learn more about the topics of our choice. The Thought Leader Sessions and Wednesday Technical Tours were also discussed.

After the Congress activity presentations, we were directed to open the informational bag that we received at check-in. The speaker then walked us through each handout in the bag and explained them to us. As a first-time attendee at a large conference, I appreciated the assistance in understanding the treasure trove of information provided at check-in. The most useful to me was the introduction to the convenient At-a-Glance Congress session guide that provided the time and room location for all of the Congress activities.

The final activity of the morning was the networking exercise that got everyone moving around the room and ensured that we would get acquainted with more than just the people sitting near us. The networking exercise provided each first-timer a questionnaire to fill out. Each question provided a description and the objective was to move around the room and find a person who fit the description and get them to sign the questionnaire. The questionnaire included such fun questions as "Find someone who is the same age as you." The questionnaire provided a good way to get to know many different people and to learn interesting tidbits about them.

As a first-time Congress attendee, I feel that the First-Timers Meeting was a valuable experience. Not only did I get a great breakfast and a chance to meet new people, I learned about the educational, motivational and networking opportunities that the Congress provided and as a result was better able to take full advantage of the conference. I highly recommend that first-time attendees to the 2008 APWA Congress attend this meeting for a great start to their Congress experience. To echo Augie Chang's optimism in his Diversity Events update in the November 2007 APWA Reporter, we should look forward to an even greater First-Timers Meeting in New Orleans next year.

Rosemary Baltcha can be reached at (559) 262-4371 or rbaltcha@co.fresno.ca.us; Rebecca Bilderback can be reached at (913) 971-9116 or RBilderback@olatheks.org.