By: Ryan Balu
This year’s Conference on National Affairs is set apart from previous years due to numerous reasons, most obviously by the fact that it is being held online rather than at the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, North Carolina. While returning delegates feel this difference keenly as they proceed in this year’s activities, about two-thirds of the attendees are actually first-year CONA delegates. These 400 some delegates have no concept of what actually occurs at Blue Ridge and all the various traditions that come with being a CONA attendee. Despite this unfortunate reality, returning delegates know that what has come to be known as the “Blue Ridge Spirit” emanates not from where we are but from who we are and who we choose to be.
The media program is doing its best to help provide first years with some information about what goes on during an in-person conference through its podcasts, videos, social media posts, and articles. By interviewing several delegates, we were able to collect insight on how this year’s conference is going and how it compares to a standard one on The Mountain. Some returning delegates such as Kemper Cole (Delaware), Venicesa White (Oklahoma), and Dora Herdon (Oklahoma) find virtual life “remarkably easy to adjust to,” but others find it difficult as being at home can be both distracting and isolating. Fortunately, the virtual conference also comes with benefits such as a more flexible schedule, more time to sleep in, and the ability to easily research during session. Surprisingly, Dora Herdon (Oklahoma) feels that “the loss of sleep deprivation almost takes [away] from the experience because [normally,] it adds this underlining adrenaline to everything” going on at The Mountain. After asking delegates whether participating and engaging each other was easier or harder during this virtual experience, the answers were split. Some delegates such as Mary Tiffin (California) and Aishwarya Swamidurai (Oklahoma) found debating and presenting to be easy not only because of “the hard work and passion of the conference leadership” but also because it was easier for POs to recognize who was raising their hands. Furthermore, delegates did not feel as though they had a “large number of eyes” watching them and thus, were less nervous and more ambitious. On the other hand, delegates also felt as though the session lacked some of the “special energy on The Mountain” and acknowledged how easy it was to get distracted or “tune out your computer.”
While a normal day on The Mountain stills consists of attending session and delegation meetings, meal times and CONA traditions bring delegates together and allow them to bond in a way that is hard to recreate virtually. Unfortunately, this year’s delegates are missing out on numerous fun activities, but at least they have many new experiences to look forward to next year. One such activity is the annual shirt and pin trading: each delegation will bring pins and shirts representing their state, and delegates will trade them amongst themselves to collect as many states as they can. Delegation chanting is another activity at conference, and it often takes place during mealtimes. Delegates come up with a chant for their state and try to overpower each other’s chants in the dining hall. Along with these traditions are many others such as enjoying eureka treats, watching sunrises on The Mountain, having fun at the theme dance, attending the CONA bonfire, relaxing and discussing on the Eureka porch, drinking Cheerwine, and participating in the general chaos that occurs at Blue Ridge. (More descriptions of CONA traditions are on the CONA blog) In reality, most delegates are truly missing one thing: each other. As summarized by delegate Dora Herndon (Oklahoma), “getting to room together and combining the outdoorsy summer camp feel with debating policies and trying to better the world creates this magical manic energy,” and it is this energy, the “Blue Ridge Spirit,” that makes CONA the amazing and unique conference that it is, whether online or in person.