Bryonna Bowen, an international relations student at Brigham Young University, was one of the many students who took part in the Wheatley International Affairs Conference (WIAC) on the “Middle East: Power, Politics, & Prospects for Peace” in February 2015.
Q: Tell us in a nutshell what WIAC is.
Bryonna: BYU hosts an annual conference where students from several different colleges come here to BYU and have a week to discuss different topics related to an overall theme. This year’s conference theme was on the Middle East. A professor or academic mentor experienced on the topic leads the conversation, gives some background information, and then all the students bounce ideas off of each other to improve the situation based on what we’ve learned and already know. The end result is a policy proposal presented at the end of the week and we get some feedback from the round table chairs and advisers. The “round table” I was on this year was “Political Economy in the Middle East,” and we were able to pick one area we wanted to focus on and recommend a policy that could improve this issue. Some groups have really large scopes for their policy where they try to solve as much as the problem as possible and other groups just say that any progression is good and take small policy steps.
Q: Is there any preparation needed for this event?
Bryonna: As a BYU student, we have prep class for it, a 2 credit class, where we do readings for each of the round tables. The students from other universities just do the readings for their specific round table, but there’s usually at least 5 to 10 readings, whether it’s from a chapter a book or an academic article or something else related. Doing the readings you get a basic knowledge of what we’re discussing so that you don’t come in blind sided. We’re all at least somewhat knowledgeable on the situation before we go in so we can just have a good educated discussion. It is a fair amount of preparation but it’s good because you prepare; you’re able to have that intellectual conversation, and you’re able to progress.
Q: How and why did you start WIAC?
Bryonna: I started last year, and did WIAC 2014 and 2015. I just signed up for the prep course because it was something I was interested in. It’s a fabulous networking opportunity; a way to get involved on a national level with different organizations. [The] Wheatley Institute does a really good job of bringing in very prestigious academics and other experts to work with us and I’m still getting emails from [them] from [their] organization. I have created good networks and strengthened ties with BYU professors that have gone to the conferences both years.
Q: How does participating in WIAC help you as an international relations student?
Bryonna: It opens my eyes to different opinions out there and gets me involved in the discussion outside of just the campus discussion, and that’s really refreshing for me at least. It … gave me a taste of political economy so it’s a great opportunity to help me become a mini expert for a week. And [it helps] to take the knowledge from the political science and economic classes that I have had and to apply it to something where it’s not necessarily real world, but it could be applied in the real world. So it’s a nice bridge between academia and real life, application, and policy recommendation. Some of [the recommendations] really could be implemented and really could make a difference. I think it’s really good to have that environment as a student before you get out there in the real world.
Q: How has taking political science classes helped you prepare for this event?
Bryonna: All of them build off of each other in political science. I haven’t studied a lot of American politics but I’ve taken many international politics courses. For example, I’ve taken a revolutions and civil conflict class and I’m in the Arab/Israeli conflict course now both of which actually had a round table specifically on their topics this year. The conference has very narrowed topics in some instances but very broad topics too. So no matter what your interests are, you can always find something at the conference that is related to what you’ve studied and hopefully are interested in.
Q: Final question. Why would you recommend WIAC to other students?
Bryonna: WIAC is a fabulous opportunity to really build off of what we learn from classes and we get the chance to work with others thereby broadening the possibility and perspective we hold on an issue. The conference is held up at Aspen Grove and we focus [during] 10-12 hour days with a small group of people on our specific topic. Conversations can sometimes get heated, sometimes be a ton of fun, but overall it’s just a great experience. It’s a great way to not just stick with the campus stuff, but to branch out and do something else. Political science and IR [international relations] are heavily represented, but we also had some psychology majors, and a couple of engineering [students] this year. Everyone interested is welcome and should really consider participating in WIAC.
After graduation this April, Bryonna would like to become an analyst focusing on issues in the Middle East.
Note: BYU students must enroll in the WIAC Prep Course (PLSC 379R Section 4) as an elective class to register for the conference. The course was taught by Professor Fred Axelgard, senior fellow in international affairs at the Wheatley Institution.
See more information about WIAC on their website here.