In the last two weeks, I have attended two events at NASA, one at the Johnson Space Center in Texas and the other at the Ames Research Center in California. Both events were fantastic (and I promise I will write about both of them soon), but one thing was very obvious at both: I was the youngest and the least expert. Everyone at both of these events, even the younger people, was a professional. Almost everyone was able to expense the trip to an employer. I was the only full-time student there, and I think I know why.
It’s definitely not an enthusiasm problem: I’m a huge space nerd and I have lots of friends who are also huge space nerds. We will take any reasonable opportunity to do cool space things. That’s the key word, though: reasonable. Students aren’t lacking in enthusiasm or drive, but we are definitely lacking in funds. I work a full-time job when I’m not at school, so I was able to afford my trip to Texas without too much worrying about money. I’m very lucky, though: unpaid internships (while they are hopefully dwindling) are pretty common for people my age, and most students I know wouldn’t have been able to fly across the country on short notice for a one-day conference, regardless of how passionate they were about the subject matter.
As a side note, I suspect that this is not a NASA problem, but in fact a much larger one in the sciences and professional events in general. These NASA events may have been across the country, but many conferences (like this one or this one or this one, all of which I’d love to go to) have registration fees in addition to the cost of flying and staying somewhere that isn’t a tent. These are the best way to gain professional connections and the most fun way to learn, but they are simply unattainable for those of us who have difficulty coming up with a large amount of money on short notice (or any notice). It’s a hidden elitism, and it is a shame.
However, I managed to sidestep that elitism and I went to NASA, with help from my family, friends, and some very generous strangers from the internet. I used indiegogo to crowdfund my plane ticket. In a matter of a few days, I was able to raise $630 through my indiegogo campaign. The round-trip flights ended up being $740, but with a little additional help from my department and family members I was able to cover pretty much the whole trip. In the interest of helping other people like me get to these awesome events, here’s how it worked:
- I got invited to the event through NASASocial – if you want to go to their events, you need a social media presence and you need to register here when new events pop up (for more information, check out the NASA Social website or their twitter account @NASASocial). The event that I crowdfunded for was this one, part of a non-randomly-selected invitation for “social media specialists.”
- I looked at flights and hotels in the area and realized that it was going to cost me about $1000 of money that I didn’t have in order to go to the event – I was sad. Then, I asked the internet if anyone knew of any organization that would be willing to sponsor me or any other way to get my trip to California paid for. I also sent off several e-mails to various areas of my college, including my physics department and the career center, seeing if they ever sponsor this sort of thing – sometimes the organizations running the events have money to help people get there, but NASA does not.
- People on the internet told me to crowdfund it, so I looked into different crowdfunding websites. The first one I checked was Kickstarter, but you’re supposed to have an actual end product for Kickstarter, and my only real product would be a lot of tweets, some pictures, and a couple of blog posts. I ended up with indiegogo because it seemed like it was the easiest to set up and takes the smallest cut – 9% if you don’t reach your goal and 4% if you do (that’s why I set my goal at $500 when I needed closer to $900). I wrote an explanation, chose a picture, wrote up a few perks (more on that later) and I was off.
- Launch! I made my campaign public and posted it on my facebook and twitter every 8 or so hours for a couple days (I did this very apologetically so as to keep my friends). I asked for people to share the link, and they did. In a matter of 4 days, I made $600, including a donations by several friends and a lot of wonderful strangers from the online science community.
- Celebrate! Briefly. And then buy your flights and hotels. I decided to make dinner before buying the flights I’d picked out, and the price went up by $120 in between selecting the flights and buying them. It was the worst. Be prompt about flights and do all of this as far ahead of time as possible.
- Celebrate more! Go to the event! Network and relax and have fun and learn things!
- Now, I’m just starting to go back and thank everyone as emphatically as they ought to be thanked. I’m also starting to fulfill the perks I selected at the beginning, which is proving a bit more difficult than expected. I also left the campaign open for a bit longer, because I figured there was no downside.
So. Moral of the story: I wanted to go, but I couldn’t afford it, so I swallowed my pride and asked for help, and it worked. Huge thanks to everyone who helped by giving money or by sharing the link. I’m astonished that it worked, but it did. The End.