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Emma Ernst

‘The Value of Multiple Perspectives’ Emma Ernst '20 attended the Student Conference on U.S. Affairs at West Point and challenged herself to explore unfamiliar aspects of policy.

“Being a General, no matter what major, means encountering people who care about community.”

Emma Ernst ’20
Major: Politics
Minor: Education Policy
Hometown: Tampa, FL 

The Student Conference on U.S. Affairs (SCUSA) is hosted by the United States Military Academy at West Point each fall. The four-day conference facilitates constructive interaction and discussion between civilian student delegates and West Point cadets. The goal is for students to better understand the challenges the United States faces today.

The topic of the 71st annual conference, held Oct. 30-Nov. 2, 2019, was “Advancing the National Interest: The Intersection of Domestic Politics and American Foreign Policy.” As a delegate, Emma Ernst ’20 attended panel discussions and participated in roundtable discussions to tackle relevant problems and formulate feasible ways that the U.S. can convert present challenges into future opportunities. 

SCUSA is the oldest and largest conference of its type. Approximately 200 undergraduate students from over 150 colleges and universities worldwide attend. 

What made it possible for you to attend the Student Conference on U.S. Affairs?

The classes that focused on political theory and policy in the Williams School gave me the confidence apply for this conference. Professor Rebecca Harris prepared me for in-depth policy conversations the conference would offer in her public policy class. She recommended me to the department head, Professor Lucas Morel. Past attendee Annie Lentz also helped me hone my policy focus as I positioned myself as the best candidate to represent Washington and Lee. I focused on my extensive background working with domestic policy, primarily education policy.

What was your favorite part?

The most exciting part of SCUSA was the policy roundtable discussions. Each morning and afternoon we separated into focus groups based on specific priorities. I worked in a roundtable that focused on advancing the national interest in Trade, Jobs, and Globalization. We discussed global trends in conversations similar to W&L ‘s intimate seminar discussions. The students and scholars all came from different academic backgrounds. The voices from the US Military Academy, other liberal arts students, Chinese students, and scholars gave an expanded view on trade policy. We had to find common understanding before formulating advanced ideas about the future of domestic policy. I got a glimpse of my future as we discussed possible trade agreements for the United States. I felt as though I were serving the people of the United States with other civilian and military leaders.

How did the conference complement your course of study?

At Washington and Lee, my focus within my politics major has been on American politics and political theory. I study how domestic policy impacts communities and the provision of education. Education affects the quality of American communities and citizens. This positions education as a point of global competitiveness with other nations. SCUSA gathered other students of policy who care about the future of our country. It was exciting to exchange domestic policy ideas that I have formulated throughout my career as a politics student. I challenged myself to enter conversations on foreign policy with people at other policy focus tables. Through this I was able to explore different aspects of policy that were unfamiliar to me.

Did this opportunity impact your career goals? If yes, how so?

I was always confident that I would pursue a career in policy and politics (why this event excited me in the first place). Gathering with current and future leaders energizes me. We were able to talk about issues that both our country and the world are facing. SCUSA revealed my strengths of initiating conversations, organizing ideas, and creating innovative solutions. The conference reminded me of the value of multiple perspectives when developing community solutions. Now, I aspire to continue forward in domestic policy conversations and decisions. These conversations advance the national interest at the local, state, and federal level. This opportunity also provided many connections within the policy world that will support my future work with education.

Did you meet anyone interesting?

I am always on the lookout for what my Dad would call, “brushes with greatness.” I can’t help being drawn to people who have accomplished great things in policy or politics. Yet my Mom is quick to remind me that ‘great’ individuals put on their shoes one at a time. The compounding effects of these makes for interesting interactions with interesting people.

The most impressive part of the conference was the keynote, NATO Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison. She talked about the importance of civilian and military leadership for the future of American alliances. However, the coolest person I met was the sharp-dressed man sitting at my dinner table who was taking in every word that the ambassador said. My peer, Rowan, from Colorado College leaned over to me and informed me that this man was the ambassador’s public relations director. I was most interested in how he defended the ambassador’s decisions and the challenge of working with other country’s leaders. Still, he emphasized the importance of NATO’s work in upholding the integrity of American values. As we started to understand his role in developing NATO policy, he was whisking away the ambassador for her next engagement. His careful role of supporting government leadership and choosing words was intriguing. He told my friend and I to keep in touch should we ever be in DC…

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about your experience?

One of SCUSA’s goals is to develop civilian-military relationships for our future careers. Daily policy roundtables and informal delegate mixers faithfully provided opportunities to form networks. Even the accommodations reflected this relational goal. All SCUSA civilian delegates stayed in the barracks with plebe cadets. I shared a room with the first-year cadets and learned the tradition of West Point alongside them. I reveled in the tradition, honor, and leadership that they shared with the SCUSA delegates. I then was able to share my own understanding of those things from W&L.

Has anyone at W&L been a mentor to you? 

Dr. Lucas Morel has always had his door open to me. Semester check-ins before registration and advice on summer plans have kept us in contact. His lessons have helped me navigate W&L opportunities. Dr. Morel and I share faith in God as well as a passion for the American values evident in our country’s founding. We refer to these foundations as guideposts in my college and career decisions. I have been grateful for his constant support within the Williams School.

What would you say to a student who was thinking about attending W&L?

I would tell them that this is not simply a liberal arts education. W&L offers a transformative, intimate community. I came to W&L for the elite classes and distinguished professors. Yet I stayed for the amazing relationships with students and professors. The people I meet in Lexington and the vast alumni network challenge me. I read more books, start new conversations, and travel to new places because of them. Being a General, no matter what major, means encountering people who care about community.

More About Emma

Where is your Lexington “happy place?”

My happy place as of this year is the front porch of our house on the corner of Nelson and Lee. It overlooks Blue Sky Bakery and the bustling post office. It truly encapsulates my community. Find me there on a warm afternoon!

What’s your favorite W&L event?

My favorite W&L event, from what I have experienced so far, is Mock Convention. This cycle I am leading the Florida delegation as State Chair. Mock Con creates community through state delegations. I host the Florida delegation’s debate watch parties, float planning, and post-Gala midnight breakfasts. Also, I get to conduct political research on Florida primary voters with my peers while working with on-the-ground contacts. 

What is your favorite W&L memory?

My favorite W&L memory was when I joined the student sounding board for the Board of Trustees. We, the student leaders, spoke specifically on the campus climate committee. It was here that I was able to share my perspective on student life and academia. Our input helped the Trustees make decisions that would positively affect our campus that following year. The committee meeting was followed by a cocktail networking event. I connected with W&L alumni and other student leaders who care about the future of our university. That night I felt valued as a student and as a future alum. I saw my future in light of the W&L community and was honored to be a part of it. I felt the purpose of my career as a W&L General that day and was grateful that President Dudley continues to value student input within campus life. 

Favorite class?

My favorite class was Professor Bill Connelly’s seminar on French philosopher and admirer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville. Our class covered the entire text of Democracy in America that term. We applied Tocqueville’s thought to contemporary American situations. I wrote my term paper on Tocqueville’s sentiments on educating the American citizen, something I remain passionate about. I still utilize knowledge from this class in leading the Tocqueville Forum every week. The voices of Tocqueville and Prof. Connelly echo still as we discuss political thought and American values. 

Post-grad plans?

I am optimistic about the way I will apply my W&L skills. The opportunity to engage in policy conversations at SCUSA was something I would like to see in my future more. My passion remains with public service, politics, community, and education. Find me at an intersection of those things!