When officials with the Pentagon's military spouse support office last year decided to hold a virtual spouse symposium last year they were hoping to get 500 participant over four days.
Instead they had 3,500.
Now they're back at it hosting the symposium series for the second time May 21 to 24, determined to use the feedback they receive the first go around to make this year even more engaging.
"We were able to reach military spouses wherever they are, wherever they live," said Eddy Mentzer, who helps direct the Pentagon's military family policy office. "We did learn a lot last year in how to do this -- but the spouses gave us a great deal of feedback and that only allows us to be better."
Last year the event included 24 sessions streamed live on the Military OneSource Spouse Education and Career Opportunities webpage and then archived to watch later. Subjects focused on a work-life balance, with an interactive chat option for participants to talk and share resources during the sessions.
This year there are about 18 sessions with a heavier focus on employment issues than the team had last year, he said. Once again they'll be live streamed and then archived. They'll also be kicking off the week in a new way via a Facebook live event with Sean Martinbrough, an illustrator best known for his comic books, including Black Panther.
Mentzer said Martinbrough's journey mirrors that faced by many military spouses. After moving with his wife for her job, he had to work to create a successful career in a remote industry.
"He's going to talk about being your own advocate," Mentzer said.
Mentzer should know about the challenges of being a non-traditional spouse. After following his wife around the country, he landed in his current office in the Pentagon where he's become the face of the military spouse employment efforts. In a world where the vast majority of spouses are female, Mentzer has a unique take on the job challenges, and the ability to advocate for all types of spouses.
Among the sessions he's most looking forward to include a presentation by LinkedIn's head of veteran programs, Dan Savage, and a session exploring how to pick a good school when using any of Uncle Sam's spouse education benefits, such as MyCAA.
"One of the challenges we quit often face are from schools that are reaching spouses before we do. It's a predicament of MyCAA," he said. "How do you make the best choice in whatever program you're looking at so it's going help you reach the goal you have? What are the tools out there? How can you work with career coach who is going to help you examine those programs? They're all competing for our spouse's business and it doesn't matter if it's for profit or a not for profit school, they want enrollment."
The summit will also include a session aimed at spouses who are starting to think about retirement or transition.
"Retirement is more than just the Blended Retirement System, more than making sure you have a little bit of savings," he said. "It's really long term planning."
Among the feedback last year was a suggestion to make presenters more interesting and engaging. Armed with that input, Mentzer said they've been working with their speakers to improve how they work with a virtual audience.
"Everyone we had last year was very knowledgeable, but the biggest question was: is it engaging?" he said. "We don't want to have someone read from slides, that's something that we've really worked with our presenters on … really getting them spun up on not just the visual, but the presentation itself."