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Nicole Kaijser, European Association of International Education

Nicole Kaijser, senior conference programme coordinator, at the European Association of International Education (EAIE), wants to transform audiences from passive listeners to eager participants. Rob Spalding asked the questions…

That’s Entertainment

RS     Nicole, can you distil the essence of what you do?

NK     I’ll try. With so many people involved at every level in an Association event such as a conference, the audience is often forgotten. That’s where I come in.

When constructing a programme, I put myself into an attendee’s shoes, imagining how I’d want my conference day to shape up. And I bear this in mind when creating the schedule.  My role, in addition to managing the scientific programme, also includes sourcing exciting keynote speakers, arranging campus tours –  we are an educational association after all – and even organising the EAIE Choir – a favourite among  our singing participants!

In short, at the Annual Conference my role is to ensure that there’s a great programme of content to engage our 5,500+ participants. It’s a full year cycle, starting with the open call for proposals, followed by a stringent review process, ending with the polished final programme of 250 sessions, workshops and posters.

What I enjoy most about this process is steering people to think bigger than just ‘submitting’ or ‘reviewing’ a proposal, by encouraging them to think about why they are doing it and who it is for.

RS     Where did the music come from?

NK     I come from quite a musical family, and studied Music and Marketing, so I’ve always had a passion to entertain – making sure that the type of entertainment captures the audience present! I believe that this remains at the core of everything I do.

Before working at the EAIE, I planned events for home and international students and staff at the University of Manchester which gave me a fantastic basis for getting to know the international higher education audience and what drives it.

RS     What gives you most pleasure In your day-to-day work?

NK     Seeing our conference participants engaging with each other and the programme. You can’t always get it right with keynotes but when you do it’s such an amazing feeling. In Seville in 2017, Taiye Selasi received an almost endless standing ovation for her moving keynote reminding our participants why they do what they do – people are still talking about her now.

For Glasgow in 2015, I convinced our President to find the ‘perfect participant’ at the closing plenary. It involved all 2,500 participants being on their feet for a game of elimination: responding to various ‘embarrassing’ conference scenarios. The roars of laughter and complete engagement was a true highlight for me. And I was amazed to hear our President say it was for her, too!

RS     Are there dangers in what you do?

NK     I’ve learned from experience that it’s important to take a step back sometimes to see how people are receiving what we’re putting out there. I’m fortunate to work with wonderful colleagues who are extremely flexible and open to new ideas and brainstorming. Thanks to this association culture, change is a reality and we’re not afraid to try something new.

RS     And you help in other ways too?

NK     I like to think I get the best out of people, helping them realise their full potential. I run a webinar for our 400 plus programme speakers, showing them a few simple tricks, so they enjoy connecting with their audience rather than dreading a nerve-wracking one-way exchange.

RS    Could you not use the same format again and again?

NK     Simply cutting, pasting and moving on to the next event is a recipe for extinction. I like our event to continually evolve, so I ensure that we try new things each year and tweak them for the next year until they become part of the successful formula.

RS     How have you changed EAIE in these last seven years?

NK      At the recent AC Forum conference in Vienna, I told the story of how we ‘injected life’ into our programme. When I started in the role, I saw participants passively sitting in sessions, replying to their emails or checking Facebook while the speaker delivered the usual ‘death-by-PowerPoint’ presentation packed with slides full of text.

The prospect was too depressing for me to handle, so I read up on new session formats which put the participants in the middle of the action. Fast forward a few years and now we have a programme with formats which empower the participant to become a speaker without the year-long proposal process. Of course I can’t take all the credit since, most notably the conference programme committee – a fantastic group of open-minded volunteers – jointly decided to remove all barriers to contribution. Praise too, for the speakers who weren’t afraid to try something new and give it everything they have.

And it seems to have worked. In Vienna many association reps asked me to connect with their programme managers to see how we can share best practices

RS     What do you do to relax?

NK    As a British-native living in the Netherlands, I love to immerse myself in Dutch culture by speaking grammatically incorrect Dutch or trying not to fall off my bike!  Like most people I love viewing TED talks on the train to work and like most people enjoy binge watching Netflix .

RS    What next?

NK    I want all our participants to know they’re at our association’s event just by the way they feel when they’re with us. I want them to go back to their desks and make even bigger waves in their own fields.  I’d like to be able to deliver tailor-made experiences for all cultures, personality-types and age-generations for maximum satisfaction.  This will take time, research and investment but I know that this is something our association is very passionate about so we will get there.

RS   Has your job eaten into your life?

NK  At times, my job has felt more like holiday given the places my husband and I’ve been able to visit. Not having children, it is easier to travel, and my lovely neighbour looks after our cat when we’re away!  Meeting wonderful people from different cultures has broadened my perspectives and I’ve grown so much professionally doing something I truly enjoy.