I attended the Gerontological Society of America Annual Scientific Meeting in Boston with the goal of gaining exposure to the field of gerontology. I am currently working on my thesis through the Sociology Honors Program. My thesis, tentatively titled “Would you Rather: Be at Home or in a Home” compares the experience of social connectedness and perceived isolation between older adults living alone in their own homes versus in assisted living facilities. Since gerontology is a rare interest among undergraduates and the University of Michigan does not have a program dedicated to gerontology, this conference opened the door for me into a whole new world. I quickly felt at home among the many sociologists, as well as representatives from other disciplines (medicine, psychology, social work, etc.) who share my interest in aging.
The conference intimidated me at first. At five days long and over 4,000 attendees, I wasn’t sure where to begin. I was also fairly confident that I would not find another undergraduate at the conference (which turned out to be true, although I did hear of one who came to present with a professor). After checking in, I snuck into my first session a few minutes late. I felt more at ease because I happened to know the first presenter, a University of Michigan graduate student whose research project I am working on through SURO. The session, “Social Network, Friendship, Loneliness and Isolation”, interested me because of its relevance to my thesis. I was excited that I could understand the research and relate it to my own. I even asked one of the presenters a question! This excitement heightened that evening at the first poster session, where I met an experienced researcher I had been hoping to meet and spoke to the principal investigator of a longitudinal study of centenarians who expressed interest in hiring me as a research assistant after graduation.
With every session, poster and new connection, I gained confidence and enthusiasm about my attendance at this conference. I was pleased to recognize my own competence in research and sociology just by being able to understand the research presented. I even met a few people whose research I have cited in my thesis! Even more exciting was the thrill of conversing about my own research with seasoned experts, who respected my work and my ambition for attending the conference as a lone undergraduate. After five exhausting days of learning about new research, sharing my own, and developing connections, I came home with a pocket full of business cards and a fresh motivation to return to my thesis with rigor and curiosity.