Who will lead the field of mental retardation and the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) in the next decades? To find the answer to this question, we must look to the students of today. Bringing promising new professionals into the field must be an AAMR priority if we are to stay at the cutting edge of research, practice, and policy.

The average age of AAMR members is nearly 50, and students make up less than 3% (only 158) of our current membership. Further, AAMR student membership is decreasing. According to Charles Helman, former AAMR office staff member, the total number of student members listed in the membership database dropped from 220 to 158 between the years 2001 and 2002. This represents a drop in student membership from 3.1% to 2.5% of the entire membership. In contrast, AAMR has 525 Life members (AAMR members for longer than 30 years). The AAMR's ability to attract and retain young professionals is one of the top three factors affecting the future of the field of mental retardation according to AAMR's 1998 Future Visions Initiative Survey.

The AAMR included two principles in its mission statement relating to student involvement and cultivating future leadership. The association also offers reduced membership dues and reduced conference rates for students and recognizes leadership potential with a Student Award. Several recent AAMR presidents have hosted special receptions for students to meet the AAMR leadership at the annual AAMR meetings. Finally, AAMR recently established a new committee to serve the interests of students and young professionals.

The Academy on Mental Retardation (Academy) also took several important steps towards promoting student membership and participation at the AAMR Annual Meeting. The Academy has sponsored the Student Dissertation Award to highlight the research work of graduate students in the field of mental retardation, organized a student poster session, and has hosted a “Meet-a-Mentor” social activity during the AAMR annual meeting.

The AAMR and the Academy joined forces in an attempt to recruit and retain young researchers and professionals to ensure the leadership of our field in the new millennium. As part of this Student Initiative, a survey was mailed to all student members of AAMR in 2000. The purpose of the survey was to find out from students what they wanted from AAMR and how they rated AAMR's efforts at meeting student needs. These findings are briefly summarized.

Method

Participants

All participants were student members or recent graduates who had been student members of AAMR. Of the 205 student members for whom we had current addresses, 59 returned completed surveys, a 29% response rate. Respondents were predominately women (73%) and ranged in age from 21 to 62, with an average age of 33. Most respondents were enrolled in graduate studies (81%); with fewer undergraduate students (9%); and recent graduates (9%), 3 of whom were completing postdoctoral fellowships. As shown in Table 1, participants represented a variety of disciplines similar to the AAMR constituency. Notably absent from this list is medicine. The median length of AAMR membership was 2 years (range = 1 to 14). Forty-six percent of student members had been members of AAMR for one year or less.

Procedure

The survey was mailed out with a preaddressed and postage-paid envelope to all 205 student members of AAMR (April 2000). No follow-up call or second mailing was made.

Results and Discussion

How Did Student Members Learn About AAMR?

Students were asked how they heard about AAMR. Most participants had been introduced to the association by a professor (37%). Other students learned of the association through their employer (22%) or through one of the AAMR journals (18%). Some students learned about AAMR on their own through the AAMR website (7%), AAMR brochure or mailings (4%), or from other students (4%).

What Other MR/DD Organizations Did They Belong To?

A large percentage of students (64%) belonged to the following additional MR/DD organizations: Arc, 19%; TASH, 22%; Council on Exceptional Children, 14%; President's Committee on Mental Retardation, 3%; Academy on Mental Retardation, 7%; Intellectual Association for the Scientific Study of Intellectual Disabilities, 3%; NADD, 3%.

How Welcome Do Students Feel at AAMR?

Overall, students reported feeling welcome at AAMR. When presented with the statement, “AAMR has made me feel welcome in the Association,” 66% indicated that they agree (44%) or strongly agree (22%). However, 31% of students expressed the opinion that AAMR dues are not reasonably priced for students.

What Products or Services Did Students Find Most Useful to Their Training?

We emphasize the importance that students placed on mentoring programs (see Table 2). More of an effort should be made to foster relationships between senior leaders and students.

Is It Important for Students to Attend Conferences?

All student respondents agreed that conference attendance was important for students. Yet, less than half (45%) had attended an AAMR conference (state, regional, or national) themselves. It can be seen in Table 3 that when asked how AAMR can make the annual meetings more “student friendly,” most identified student scholarships to attend annual meetings, cheaper hotel accommodations, lower registration fees for students, and the possibility of volunteering at the conference in exchange for free registration. All these responses relate to the financial aspects of the annual meeting. Clearly, students are overwhelmingly preoccupied with the expense associated with attending the meeting. Opportunities to meet senior professionals in AAMR came in a close second to financial concerns.

The top three reasons for attending the AAMR annual meeting endorsed by students were (a) to learn about the field of MR/DD, (b) to meet MR/DD professionals, and (c) to meet researchers in MR/DD. Again, this finding supports the importance of mentoring activities at AAMR meetings. Indeed, social events scored in the top three activities (with paper and poster presentations) that students reported finding beneficial at the annual meeting.

What Can AAMR Do for Students?

Most students (60%) reported that they paid for at least half of the cost of attending the conference out of pocket. It may surprise some readers that fewer than 2% of these students received financial support from parents or family members for conference attendance. We know that most students have a very limited income. The high proportion of students willing to sacrifice meager financial resources suggests the high level of personal commitment of these young professionals. Although admirable, it seems likely that other students were equally dedicated but had fewer financial resources and found conference attendance prohibitively expensive. We hope this finding prompts AAMR leadership to think of ways to support conference attendance for students and new professionals by making it more affordable.

Concluding Remarks

The AAMR leadership should strive to recruit students into the association. We currently have four times as many life members than student members. This ratio needs to be reversed. We need life members because these senior members are the current leaders of our association, and they attract the students and new professionals to AAMR and to the field of developmental disabilities. However, we need to ensure the future of our association and its leadership by recruiting and retaining the next generation of leaders in our field.

In comparison to other professional associations, AAMR has the lowest percentage of student members. As shown in Table 4, students comprise between 6.5% and 38.5% of membership in other professional organizations.

Suggestions for Increasing Student Membership and Conference Participation

  • Make the meetings more affordable

  • Plan student-friendly activities at the annual meeting, such as opportunities for students to meet mentors

  • Allow students to participate in the AAMR election process (currently students are non-voting members)

  • Create a student seat on the AAMR Board of Directors to be elected by student members

  • Look at similar professional organizations and learn from their success in attracting student members to their association and annual meetings

  • Give members the opportunity to make a voluntary contribution to support students' participation at the annual meeting (this is currently provided for self-advocates). This type of student sponsorship has been successful in other organizations (e.g., Gatlinburg)

Acknowledgments

We thank Cathy Ficker-Terrill, past president of the American Association on Mental Retardation, for paying the postage for mailing the student questionnaires.

Author notes

Authors: Susan M. Havercamp, PhD, Assistant Professor ( susan.havercamp@cdl.unc.edu), and Marc J. Tassé, PhD, Associate Professor, Center for Development and Learning, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, CB #7255, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7255. Yona Lunsky, PhD, Assistant Professor, Dual Diagnosis Program, Center for Addiction and Mental Health, University of Toronto, 1001 Queen St. West, Unit 4-4, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M6J 1H4, Nathalie Garcin, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department Of Psychiatry, Dual Diagnosis Program, Queen's University, 275 Bagot St., Suite 201, Kingston, Ontario, Canada K7L 3G4