Attention … to foreign policy

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November 21, 2013

By Mike Killeen

Katie Spoden, a CSB senior, is seen with her Round Table group at the conference.  Spoden is in the front row, first person on the left.
SJU student Austin Eighan (front row, third from left) poses for a picture with his Round Table Group at the conference.

Frank Pace had just been named the third Secretary of the Army when he spoke to the 1950 graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

 "I believe it is a memorable experience for any American citizen to visit this institution, which for nearly 150 years has contributed so much to the growth and the traditions of our nation," Pace said in an address to the cadets that day.

That quote rings true 63 years later. Just ask Katie Spoden and Austin Eighan.

Spoden, a College of Saint Benedict senior, and Eighan, a Saint John's University senior, attended the 65th Student Conference on U.S. Affairs Oct. 30-Nov. 2 at West Point. The theme of the conference, attended by 198 undergraduate students from over 100 colleges and universities worldwide, was "Navigating Demographic Flows: Populations, Power and Policy."

"I thought it would be a cool opportunity during my senior year to push myself outside my comfort zone and go talk with other people who are interested in this topic," Spoden said.

"I wanted to represent Saint John's at an international conference. I thought it would be a lot of fun, but also, the topics they were talking about were good," Eighan said.

The CSB and SJU students are selected and sponsored for the conference by the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement at SJU. The McCarthy Center has sent students to the conference for the last six years.

"This conference brings together the top undergraduate students from all over the world to discuss critical public policy issues," said Matt Lindstrom, director of the McCarthy Center and professor of political science at CSB and SJU. "Our students have a unique opportunity to not only further their knowledge, they also expand their network of contacts and have an extraordinarily unique experience living amongst the cadets for a couple days."

During the conference, attendees select one of 15 roundtable topics to participate in. Discussions are held on the impact of United States' international policy, and then attempt to formulate policy recommendations by writing policy papers on that field. Students also get a unique look at the daily life of the cadets, who plan, coordinate and participate in the event (each roundtable is led by a cadet and includes cadet members). Conference participants are housed in the cadet barracks.

Spoden participated in a discussion on "The Omnivore's Security Dilemma: The International Politics of Food and Water," dealing with the security of international food and water resources.

Eighan took part in "Lula's Legacy: Brazil's Rise and South America's Future," a roundtable which addressed the presidency of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, who led Brazil from 2003-11.

Spoden said her group looked at who controls food and water resources and how food insecurity could lead to intrastate or interstate wars. Her group also examined how climate change and natural disasters affect those resources.

"As a whole group, we defined what we were actually talking about, and then split up into smaller groups to address actual policy proposals. We split into four smaller groups: addressing access to food, availability of food, the use of the food and the quality of the food," Spoden said.

"My small group advocated for a new index to be created for the use of foreign investors that provides transparent information on the sustainability of domestic food supplies," Spoden said. "Investors want to invest in a country that is not going to be vulnerable to internal turmoil of food security issues."

Eighan said his group spoke on a variety of issues relating how best to represent Brazil's interests and image in the United States, from security to economics and political differences the two countries have. His smaller group wrote about trade subsidies and tariffs between the U.S. and Brazil.

"Ethanol production was a huge amount of the discussion, because there is a huge lobbying force in protecting ethanol production in the United States," Eighan said. "So we talked a lot about that, about taking away some of the protectionist policies and then allowing the U.S. companies and businesses and farms to go on the international market and protecting them."

Both would encourage others to apply for the conference.

"It was an awesome opportunity to go and talk about something I'm so interested in, and to discuss this topic with other students and cadets who are also interested in food security," Spoden said.

"I very much appreciated the experience," Eighan said. "I really liked discussing with academics and scholars about current issues. I really appreciated that the format was set up where you discuss the issue, and then you had to write a policy."