I’ve been going to the Secular Student Alliance annual conference since 2010, after my freshman year of college. Since then, the staff has grown from three people and two interns to a staff of more than fifteen. The conference itself has grown from one in Columbus, Ohio with maybe around 100 attendees, to two conferences with a combined attendance of a little over 400. They split their annual conference into two – one in Las Vegas at the end of June and one in Columbus in July. Since I live on the east coast, it made sense to join my Secular Student Alliance affiliate in attending this year (first time as an alumna)!

I’ve been to a decent many of conferences, but I have to say this is my favorite. I have a weird, geeky passion for student leadership, but it also helps that my first secular conference was the Secular Student Alliance conference. Each year, I get the opportunity to see friends I made four years ago, but a whole slew of new faces. I also get to see my new group leaders get excited about the coming year and all the things they’ve learned.

Cost: B

Of conferences that are comparable in price, the SSA conference is a fair deal. If you have a group of five members, it’s $25 per person for registration which includes breakfast on Saturday and Sunday as well as lunch on Saturday. $15 gets you a tshirt, and to sleep in the dorms (with a room mate), it’s $23/night. Since they include travel grants, you can usually offset the cost to the conference. Generally, you can have a pretty awesome weekend and learn a lot for under $100. However, the problem with this is that it could be discouraging to students who are just starting groups and don’t have four friends to bring to the conference with them. Student members of the SSA pay $39 for their registration and may have to fly into Columbus rather than driving – I think the price of travel has been helped with the split between the costs for the conference, but it could still be a problem. Another problem is the lack of food on Saturday night. I personally am fine with paying my own way at a local restaurant (and there are A LOT), there are other students who aren’t quite as lucky.

Ultimately, the SSA conference deal is best if you are driving with a group of people from your group rather than just starting a group on your own, especially if you come from an area that isn’t at all close to Vegas or Columbus (HAHA, UPPER MIDWESTERNERS)

Location: B

Okay, so I love Columbus, but I understand that it’s not really one of the cities that people visit. It’s not a touristy type city and to fly into Columbus can definitely be on the more expensive side. For my group to get there, it’s a ten hour drive with about half of that through the mountains. However, it has a fantastic food scene. There are so many options for vegans and vegetarians, it’s crazy. There are wonderful local restaurants (and ice cream)! The conference itself is in the Ohio Union, thanks to Ohio State’s SSA affiliate, which is huge and spacious. It’s great for the TED talk set up, but with everyone in separate rooms (because of the three or four tracks going on), it can dampen the ability to network with leaders. It’s also on High Street which is in the middle of Columbus’ night life area. This is both a positive and a negative – positive for me since I’m over 21, negative for my group members that aren’t. However, it’s a pretty college friendly town.

I would give Columbus an A if it weren’t for the awkward location/price of flights to Columbus, but I am biased towards it. 🙂

Policies: A

The SSA conference was one of the first to institute a no-tolerance policy for harassment. There were no complaints of harassment at this year’s conference either.

Diversity of Topics: A-

With three to four tracks going each day of the conference, you could pick and choose pretty much whatever topic you wanted to hear about. There were tracks for leadership, group starting, advising a group, and others. However, with having three talks at a time, it was sometimes problematic when two diversity talks were given at the same time. You either had to miss one you wanted to see or split your time between them. The SSA puts all of the talks on YouTube eventually, but some may take a couple months to be put up.

Diversity of People: C

While I don’t have statistics on hand, SSA is generally a sample population of the general make up of student groups. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily half women and half men, but it was decent mix of genders. There were a few minority students, but it would always be nice to see more. It was pretty white. As far as new speakers, I’d give it a B+ since there are always never-before-heard speakers and some oldie-but-goodie types.

Diversity of Gender, Race, etc: D

There were 20 women and six people of color out of 58 speakers. That’s only a third women, which is better than a good chunk of other conferences. It was also pretty abysmally white. I was hoping that I could say that Vegas was better, but that doesn’t seem to be the case after looking at their website for the speaker page. There was a great deal of diversity for ages though – student speakers, middle age executive director speakers, and older people. I love that SSA has student speakers apply so there’s always new people who have never spoken at conferences before!

General Atmosphere: A 

As I said, the SSA conference is pretty much my favorite conference. I get to see old friends and meet new ones, network with student leaders and national leaders alike, learn new things and relearn old things, and I just end up almost always having a fantastic time. The SSA staff are some of the most friendly people I know. If there is a problem, they will do their best to fix it. It’s also super fun to see first time SSA con-goers and see how excited they are about all the new things they’re planning.

Overall grade: B

The SSA conference is honestly one of the most useful experiences for a student activist. It covers so many topics and lends itself to meeting so many people that can be resources for you in the future. It’s been so exciting to see the SSA grow as an organization and as a conference over the last few years and I can only hope that it will continue to grow over the next few years. If you want to help them grow, you should know that they are currently crowd-sourcing for a Rapid Response Organizer, which is a position designed to mitigate the mistreatment of secular high school and college students, as well as amplify some of the amazing works these same students are undertaking. Find more information here!