In October 2011, I had the opportunity to go down the road to the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado Springs and participate in their annual foreign affairs conference, called the Academy Assembly. 2011 marked the 53rd running of the event, and in the past it has featured speakers and participants from the likes of Paul H. Nitze (1959) to Donald Rumsfeld (representing the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1970) to John Nagl (2009). It was a great experience, not only professionally, in what really was my first opportunity to interact with some really bright cadets and also undergraduate students from various public and private universities across the U.S. who were delegates of their schools to the Assembly, but also personally, in that I had never really been any of our nation’s military academies before. While I was there I had a chance to tour the famous chapel (see a few of the photos I took at the chapel below (along with some other photos from the week) – really beautiful!), take a meal with the cadets (all 3,000 of them!), and stroll the grounds of what really is a fantastic location, situated hard against the front range of the Rocky Mountains overlooking Colorado Springs. I came away from the experience really impressed by the caliber of cadets at the Air Force Academy and hoping that I have a chance to visit again soon!
My official duties at the Academy Assembly were threefold: first, moderate the discussions of the several cadets and civilian delegates assigned to my roundtable. I believe there were about ten of us, in total, including me and the cadet who was assigned to guide me around the campus during the week I was there, Cadet Second Class Andrew Gallion. After each major event/speaker during that week, we convened a roundtable to discuss what we had just heard attempt to tie it in with the overall Assembly theme, “Power and Influence: Global Dynamics in the 21st Century.” Speakers at this year’s assembly (bios here) included Mrs. Gillian Sorensen, United Nations Foundation Senior Advisor and National Advocate; several Olmsted Scholars (include myself; more on this aspect below); Undersecretary of the Air Force Erin Conaton; Mr. Peter Brookes, Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation; USAFA’s own Dr. Schuyler Foerster, Brent Scowcroft Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Air Force Academy (I liked his presentation the best of all the week’s presentations – it was candid and realistic), and finally, Ambassador Christopher Hill, currently Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver (and previously U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia, Poland, South Korea, and Iraq, as well as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs from 2005 – 2009). All the roundtable discussions augured towards a final deliverable: a set of “findings” that distilled each small group’s several hours of discussion and debate on the issues presented into a short document complete with conclusions and recommendations.
The second thing was to participate in a special panel featuring all the Olmsted Scholars who came to the Assembly, which in 2011 totaled six (there were originally supposed to be seven of us, but one scholar had to cancel at the last minute). This was an inordinately high number of scholars, according to the scuttlebutt floating around the Assembly, so the organizers decided to devote an entire panel to our insights. We each had a chance to speak for a few minutes about some of the major issues facing our nation/region of study, and after everyone had a chance to speak, the floor was opened to the cadets and delegates for questions. By the miracles of modern technology, I have obtained for you a chance to watch the Olmsted panel in full, which runs about 1 hour and 6 minutes. There are some pretty interesting perspectives shared by the various Scholars on Turkey, China (x2), France, Russia, and, of course, Taiwan.
The final role of Olmsted Scholars at the Academy Assembly is just to interact with the cadets and delegates, and for the cadets in particular, be a resource for them regarding the Olmsted Scholar Program and service as a military officer in general. (Full disclosure: the Olmsted Foundation is one of the primary donors which fund the Academy Assembly each year.) This was perhaps the easiest role to fill – after all, it’s pretty simple to convey the sheer awesomeness of the opportunity available to young military officers to spend 3 years studying the language and culture of their country of choice, spending at least 2 of those years overseas and essentially “own your own program” to pursue a master’s degree and advanced language and cultural studies. The Olmsted Scholar Program is pretty well-known amongst the U.S. Air Force Officer corps, and, from what I saw at the Academy, also amongst cadets. Obviously, part of the reason past Olmsted Scholars such as myself are invited to these conferences (similar events are held annually at both the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy) is to help spread the word about scholarship to cadets who in a few short years will be in the eligibility window for the program.
Finally, the 28 October 2011 edition of Academy Spirit, the official newspaper of the U.S. Air Force Academy, carried a two-page spread about the 53rd Academy Assembly. You can see it here (html), or, if you prefer to read a “broadsheet” format, check out pages 8-9 here (PDF).
Bonus: on the final day of the Assembly, I had the opportunity to see the entire USAFA Cadet Wing put on a parade in honor of General Peter Pace, USMC (Ret.), who was being honored with the 2010 Thomas D. White National Defense Award, the highest honor the Academy can bestow. You can see some of the photos from that event here.