When applications opened for the United States Government Student Leadership Conference 2020 a year ago, it presented an enticing opportunity to university students across Australia. In addition to developing diplomacy and policymaking skills under the tutelage of experts, the conference offered successful applicants a fully funded trip to Noosa, Queensland.
Of course, this was before COVID-19 drastically changed our lives and made interstate travel and in-person gatherings propositions even the most seasoned diplomat couldn’t negotiate.
Nevertheless, this year’s conference (turn program) has rolled on and delivered a memorable experience for two law students at The Australian National University (ANU): Varshini Viswanath, a second-year Bachelor of International Relations/Laws (Hons) student; and Andrew Ray, who graduates this month with his Bachelor of Laws (Hons)/Science.
Both students said the conference’s conversion to an online event has delivered unexpected benefits.
“The highlight for me has been engaging with a whole range of likeminded individuals from all around the country. I think the online format is quite nice, in that respect; rather than meeting everyone for one or two days, we get this ongoing, online form of communication and competition that allows us to work directly with each other,” said Andrew.
Q&A sessions over Zoom in which students can network with each other complement seminars and workshops led by experts from academic, diplomatic and public service backgrounds.
“I was super excited to go to Noosa, but it’s been really good to stay in constant touch with everyone. When you meet them, you realise there are some incredible people who share similar interests. You can both be of great support to each other in future,” said Varshini, who completed her secondary schooling at an American school in Indonesia.
“The fact that I was exposed to different foreign policies throughout my education has made this experience really interesting. When I came to Australia for uni, I had the chance to see those two perspectives – the Indonesian and the American – combine with the domestic perspectives here. I’m interested in how they interact with the Indo-Pacific.”
One of the highlights of the conference is a competition in which students, working in teams of four or five and representing various universities, develop communiqués in response to real-world scenarios at the intersection of international relations, diplomacy and policymaking.
The most recent round of the competition centred on the changing economic climate of the Indo-Pacific and its implications for the US-Australian alliance with Varshini’s and Andrew’s team taking the first place prize of US$3000.
“It’s been a steep learning curve, but there have definitely been some transferable legal skills from our time learning at the ANU,” said Andrew.
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