25 students descend on D.C. for the 2023 World Affairs Council of America National Conference

The World Affairs Councils of America’s annual conference brought students, policy experts, public servants and business leaders together to build public engagement with international diplomacy.

WACA student scholars pose with fmr. United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Pickering. Photo Credit: World Affairs Council STL.

The World Affairs Councils of America — a civic engagement organization that oversees councils in over 40 states and the District of Columbia — held its yearly national conference Nov. 14 to 17 at the historic Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. I attended the conference for most of its runtime under a student scholarship arranged through the Alaska World Affairs Council.

Upon arrival students began networking with the conference’s hundreds of attendees — many of whom were foreign policy veterans or major geopolitical thought leaders. There was an expansive roster of speakers for conference events at the hotel and various sites throughout the city.

The lineup at the Mayflower included high profile guest speakers such as former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Thomas Pickering, former South African Defense Minister and prominent Nelson Mandela ally Roelf Meyer and NPR Global Democracy Correspondent Frank Langfitt. Many more spoke at town halls and panels where they engaged with attendees off-stage.

Langfitt discussed his time abroad covering China’s economy and Ukraine during wartime. He has some unique connections to UAA faculty, having worked with Journalism and Public Communications faculty such as Elizabeth Arnold at NPR.

Student Scholarship recipients for the World Affairs Councils of America traverse the streets of DC, led by Kaela Rider. Photo by Mark Zimmerman.

Breakout town-hall-style sessions on Nov. 16 covered Baltic conflict hotspots, the future of energy and the United States’ troubles in Afghanistan. I attended the Afghanistan session which was hosted by “Zero Sum Victory” author and career military strategist Christopher Kolenda. Kolenda used his experiences commanding an airborne brigade in Afghanistan and advising strategic policy in the region to identify failures in Afghan nation-building that led to long-term corruption and an inability to defend the new government against public distrust and Taliban predation.

Other opportunities to network and engage were offered outside of the conference rooms. At the National Museum of American Diplomacy, students listened to Kieth Harper — the first Native American U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council from 2014 to 2017. He also served as the Native American policy chair for the 2008 Obama campaign and was the environmental advisor to the Obama Administration. A panel session at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs pitched graduate opportunities to prospective students.

Washington’s various policy think tanks and institutes also received a spotlight during the conference. I visited both the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy on the 15th and the Stimson Center on the 16th — the former specializing in Middle East policy research and the latter specializing in general matters of global security.

Work showcased at the Washington Institute included the Fikra Forum — a multilingual news and public opinion source — and policy recommendations they have issued in relation to Afghanistan, Israel, Iran and Syria among others.

At Stimson, a broad range of policy focus and expertise was represented by the three panelists attendees interacted with. Stimson staff explained their partnership with Microsoft on drafting ethics principles for generative A.I., how they use meteorological data and direct communication with local leaders to build disaster resiliency in the Mekong region of Southeast Asia and how they gather satellite imagery to glean critical details of North Korean defense research as a part of their ‘38 North’ subsidiary.

I also interacted with other students on the trip — many of whom are baccalaureate students and undergraduate researchers in political science, law or international studies. Students from around the country participated both in the WACA national conference and educational and networking opportunities outside the Mayflower. Events and opportunities unique to the student scholar group included the trip to the Washington Institute, the Museum visit and two speaking spots at the conference’s opening dinner on the 15th and the final dinner on the 17th.

The WACA student scholars — led by program director Kaela Rider — bonded quickly over shared interests and nightly excursions to major Washington landmarks, shops and restaurants. On one walk to the Capitol Building, myself and a few other students inadvertently arrived during the senate vote on the recent stopgap spending bill — watching legislators and their staff exit the building after the late-night vote.

Student scholars were enriched by the many opportunities to connect and learn during the conference. Opportunities such as speaking at dinners, engaging with industry and policy leaders and exploring D.C. gave students the chance to directly engage with discussions on foreign policy.

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