GPA 2020 Annual Conference Scholarship Essay, by Sara Wagner

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Arizona Founding Chapter Jerry Dillehay Scholarship


I was honored to receive a scholarship to attend the annual GPA conference. Since it was my sixth conference, I was fully aware of its value. When I became a GPA member in 2012, my employer always sent me (being a county employee, I attended three conferences this way, focusing upon all-things-government); then, in 2016, I ventured out on my own as a consultant. I didn’t attend that transitional year but returned (paying my own way) the next two years. I again missed the conference in 2019 and felt it was time to reconnect.

While I was initially apprehensive about a virtual conference, I was pleasantly surprised! There were countless silver linings to this format, the best being that we no longer had to agonize over which breakout sessions to attend (since one can now participate in ALL of them!). Having access to every session (including handouts, in context) for an entire year is an incredible bonus. I was impressed by how smoothly things went. Meaningful interpersonal connections were also a highlight­­. In these ways, the format alone (it was my first virtual conference) taught me a lot.

Making these kinds of opportunities available to grant professionals from all walks of life (including income brackets) is a wonderful thing to do. The scholarship’s value is hard to quantify. Interacting with peers helps one to affirm what s/he already knows, as well as points to skills one can work on. This particular conference left me eager to continue refining my craft––underscoring the importance of networking. Colleagues I met in sessions/exhibit breaks/lunches reached out on LinkedIn, too. GPA conferences connect us to those who not only understand us, but lift us up and energize us to continue on this path.

The biggest conference takeaway for me was to “only do what you love” (said so genuinely in a session I attended). Seeing the enthusiasm of other consultants spilling over made we wonder why I wasn’t as effusive as they were…soon afterward, I asked myself what my favorite part of my own work is. I wanted to weave more fun into grant projects.

I reflected upon aspects of my consulting practice I could let go of, what I could breathe life into, and how I could more clearly connect my passion with my work. I wanted to be more like these peers I so admired. With this newfound clarity, I was amazed by how easy it was to sit down one morning and succinctly convey (on my website) what I offer, and why (I’m still riding this wave, in creating new/improved materials for new clients, and so much more!).

Most importantly, the 2020 conference has inspired me to give back. I began spearheading the establishment of a new GPA chapter, one that will connect a rural/frontier half of my state with these vital resources that we have all found so valuable. In January 2021, I began serving as the Governance Committee Chair. Neither of these roles was even on my radar a year ago! Something clicked for me at our recent GPA conference, wherein I had a new desire to contribute to my current field (professionally, I tended to volunteer within my original realm of public health). Now I am seeing GPA––those who run it, those who belong to it, and especially those we have the potential to reach––with new eyes.

The generosity of those who contributed to my conference scholarship makes me want to do my part, to ensure we continue building this reliable, altruistic community. So THANK YOU––I really appreciated that scholarship, made possible by the Grant Professionals Foundation, Arizona Founding Chapter, and untold others. I am excited to see what manifests, as I continue sharing what I learned. As a result of attending the recent conference, I feel more confident asserting myself as a quasi-expert, after sharpening my skills amidst women and men who are truly committed to a standard of excellence that none of us could achieve alone.

More information about Conference Scholarships, including application dates and eligibility criteria, is available here.

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