Story and photos by Mike Strasser
"It definitely took some time to get used to the West Point atmosphere, but ultimately it has increased my admiration for the cadets there who adhere to such a lifestyle," Min said. "The cadets I interacted with were all around so professional; in fact, I'd ask plebes if they were upperclassmen because freshmen at civilian colleges would rarely carry themselves in such an impressive manner, which I think speaks to the maturity that West Point fosters. The positive and insightful interaction with West Point cadets is one of the reasons why this conference was an amazing experience."
Class of 2013 Cadet Hamid Nasir was understandably thrilled in the opening hours of the 2012 Student Conference on United States Affairs.
The group of SCUSA delegates he would lead through a series of roundtable discussions were perfectly matched to the task ahead. They would spend the next three days discussing, pondering, debating and drafting a thorough policy-focused paper on American priorities in South and Central Asia beyond 2014.
“We have an amazing group of delegates—from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Lebanon—who are natives from those regions,” Nasir said. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity to work with this group of people. I mean, there are some Rhodes (Scholar) finalists here.”
Nasir was also pleased to have such a relevant topic to discuss with a roomful of brilliant minds.
“The caveat is the subject is in an austere environment where we don’t have many resources anymore,” Nasir said. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve given American lives to develop this region forward, and all of a sudden in 2014 we’re going to get out. So the question is: how in a time of limited resources are we going to preserve the gains we’ve made in this region?”
Other groups were tasked with topics ranging from U.S. democracy promotion after the Arab Spring, Federalism and the challenge of Homeland Security, challenges and opportunities in Sino-American relations and American security and the emerging challenges in cyberspace.
The common theme running throughout the 64th iteration of this conference was “Leading in Lean Times: Assuring Accountability and Assessing American Priorities in an Age of Austerity.”
“The big picture is figuring out how America retains its hegemonic stature in a time where resources are limited,” Nasir said.
For Nasir, this is his third and final SCUSA experience (he missed out last year while studying abroad in Morocco). Last time he served in the No. 2 position as chief of staff, which still surprises him making such a leap in responsibility as a sophomore, essentially overseeing the entire operation with the SCUSA commander.
Before that, Nasir remembers, as a freshman, helping out in whatever way he could “just to get a foot in the door.”
“I’ve always wanted to be involved in SCUSA,” Nasir said. “I knew early on I wanted to study international relations,and this conference is an amazing opportunity to meet some of the great minds of our generation.”
Developing and writing a policy paper in 72 hours may seem a daunting task, but the co-chairpersons serving as advisers, mentors and subject matter experts make the challenge less stressful.
“We have the benefit of these professionals who take time out of their schedules to come help and mentor us,” Nasir said. “They have either been in the region or have worked in the regions we are assigned to, bringing us on-the-ground experience. The insight they provide us is amazing.”
Many of the chairpersons assigned to the groups have previous SCUSA experience—whether as cadets, faculty members or returning military and industry leaders. Lt. Col. Rebecca Patterson, an assistant professor at the National Defense University, brought with her the experience of serving as an economist at the World Bank and a strategic advisor for the International Security Assistance Force Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. She’s also served in Iraq as an economic advisor to the 1st Armored Division and as a faculty member in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy.
“Our jobs are really to foster the discussion between the participants and hopefully keep them on track while they develop their policy paper,” Patterson said.
Though she wouldn’t provide her delegates with the exact math, Patterson was a SCUSA cadet nearly two decades ago. She said students are smarter, more articulate and just generally more resourceful than she remembered being as a SCUSA cadet.
“I think 18 years ago, we weren’t as savvy as students are today. They really do see the value of writing in academics and thinking rigorously,” Patterson said.
Of course, hers was the pre-Internet era of academics, before information was both immediate and portable. Patterson saw one delegate struggle to translate the name of an international agency, and in lieu of saying it in his native Farsi, he described the organization. Moments later, another delegate across the room extracted the name from his laptop through a WiFi connection and the discussion continued its course unimpeded.
“The amount of information available to them today is certainly vastly greater than it was back when there was no Internet,” Patterson said. “So I think it’s important they incorporate their experiences and knowledge throughout the conference and we, as co-chairs, can try to be more Socratic and draw out their experiences.”
On the final day, each group was required to present its work in skit form. Given the intellectual capital invested in the policy papers, ending the conference in a somewhat informal and sometimes comical performance might seem counterintuitive but history has shown it to be exactly what the students need.
“It’s absolutely the perfect ending,” Nasir said. “It adds a moment of levity to the situation. We’re discussing some very profound and deep issues that are not laughable matters. These are some serious challenges confronting the United States right now, and the fact that we can end this conference with a skit—and get a little silly—that simply adds a human dimension to it all.”
Early on in the conference, Nasir wasn’t sure if their paper would amount to anything groundbreaking or have a chance of being selected for publication in the Undergraduate Journal of Social Sciences.
“We might not make any huge gains from this, but the civil-military relations that are going on here are unreal,” Nasir said. “That’s the beauty of this conference. It’s a truly international cohort going on every day and everyone gets to learn from this experience.”
Alyssa Min, an international relations major at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, found SCUSA to be a unique experience.
“I’d previously attended conferences in the past, so I wasn’t expecting SCUSA to be too different from the others, but the caliber of students that I met, as well as the eye-opening ‘West Point’ lifestyle, definitely made it like none other,” Min said. “I learned so much from my peers in the roundtable and the process of breaking down a problem and looking at the bigger strategic picture without getting bogged down by details is a skill I will continue to develop, thanks to SCUSA.”
Delegates enjoyed some social time while at West Point, including a formal banquet and keynote address Nov. 8. Although the weather--due in part to a harsh nor'easter--did not cooperate with plans for extensive tours or an outdoor weapons display, there was still occassion to become acquainted with what cadets experience at West Point. Delegates were assigned to sleep in the barracks and eat in the enormous Cadet Mess at Washington Hall, which many outsiders have long commented on its resemblance to a certain dining hall in the "Harry Potter" series.
Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Dwight Eisenhower and president of the Eisenhower Group, Inc., provided the keynote address for the SCUSA banquet at Eisenhower Hall Nov. 8. In her remarks she spoke of her own involvement in U.S. affairs that mattered most to her, but then passed the torch to this new generation of leadership.
“This is absolutely your moment,” Eisenhower said. “Because what we’re doing right now in Washington, we hope, is asking those questions and put some answers behind them; and restructure ourselves for the kind of world you want us to build. That is why you are not actually the students—you’re co-builders with the people in Washington.”
To learn more about SCUSA, there is plenty of information available at the Department of Social Sciences website at www.usma.edu/sosh/scusa/SitePages/Home.aspx.
The many faces of SCUSA reflected the great diversity of this conference. More than 250 students, service academy cadets and servicemembers participated in this year’s conference, including representatives of 30 international schools and militaries. Visit the USMA Flickr site to see photos from this year's SCUSA conference at www.flickr.com/photos/west_point/sets/72157632008365418/.
Delegates congregated throughout the Jefferson Hall Library for roundtable discussions on a wide variety of topics concerning American priorities in an age of austerity during the 64th annual Student Conference on United States Affairs at West Point Nov. 7-10. More than 250 students, service academy cadets and servicemembers participated in this year’s conference, including representatives of 30 international schools and militaries. The theme of the 2012 SCUSA conference was “Leading in Lean Times.”