One-of-a-Kind Experience

USF students participate in the prestigious Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference to engage in geopolitical discussions and networking.


USF student Stephanie Germeroth (right) joined fellow conference participants at one of the NAFAC dinner socials which followed intensive lectures and discussions.

By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (May 22, 2013) – To be chosen to attend the annual Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC) is a unique honor with lasting impact.

The two students who represented the University of South Florida this year – Lianet Vazquez and Stephanie Germeroth – recognize the value all the more as they continue to reflect on their three-day immersion in some of the world’s most pressing political matters and contact with renowned experts. There’s nothing else quite like it.

NAFAC is the largest undergraduate conference of its kind in the country and is devoted to current issues, international relations and national security. It’s where military and civilian minds come together to enlighten each other’s thinking. 

Serving as hosts, the students, who are future naval officers, organize every detail from arrival to departure. They also serve as moderators, presenters and participate as delegates among their peers both military and civilian. In all, a small group of 150 undergraduate students from around the United States plus more than a dozen foreign countries have the opportunity to explore the world through a series of high-level lectures and discussions. Equally informative are the informal exchanges and social events.   

Everything takes place at the 168-year-old U.S. Naval Academy – one of the nation’s top military colleges in Annapolis, Md. – located on a sprawling 340-acre campus overlooking Chesapeake Bay. It is a major center of professional and leadership training where midshipmen come to gain an understanding of the global forces that will most likely call these service members to active duty. The conference was first held in 1961 and continues to provide a forum for developing and practicing their leadership skills.

This year’s theme was “Time of Transition,” which took its direction from an interview given by President Obama on “60 Minutes” in January where he explained, “There are transitions and transformations taking place all around the world. …Our job is to, number one, look after American security and national interests. But number two, find out where those opportunities where our intervention, our engagement, can really make a difference, and then be opportunistic about that."

The subject matter and the speakers reflected this outlook – “in a security context” – as the various scholars, ambassadors and civilian experts provided their knowledgeable perspectives.

Topics such as Economic Policy: Foreign Affairs on a Budget; Human Trafficking; Modern Illegal Drug Trade; Progressivism through the Empowerment of Women; American Priorities: Balancing Foreign Interests and Domestic Restrictions; and more were the focus of 15 roundtable discussions.   

Prominent newsmakers on the speakers’ list included Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of defense under former President George W. Bush;  William J.A. (Joe) Miller, the director of strategy, plans and policy for the United States Special Operations Command and Naval Academy alumnus; Dennis Ross, counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who formerly served as a special assistant to President Obama and the National Security Council as senior director for the Central Region and as a special advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Iran; and the Navy’s own Admiral William McRaven, the ninth commander of United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base.

USF’s Joint Military Leadership Center Associate Director John Sarao, himself a graduate of the Naval Academy and a retired commander, visited the conference a few years ago to observe and asked about sending students to represent USF. The organizers welcomed the idea and since then he has been seeking out recommendations to fill the openings they made available. 

“I am thrilled that USF has been extended this opportunity on a regular basis since 2009. We started with one delegate the first couple of years and the last three years the Naval Academy has extended an invitation for USF to send two,” Sarao said. “The student delegates we’ve selected have all been very impressive and all have relished the experience. I am very thankful to Dr. Michael Gibbons and Dean Stuart Silverman for their assistance in identifying these outstanding student delegates.”

Not all attendees are connected to the armed forces; in fact civilians make up the majority of attendees. It helps to have a concentration in political science, international studies or be an international language major.

Vazquez, a biology major with a minor in political science, falls into the latter category. She was nominated by her international law professor, Peter Funke, in the Department of Government and International Affairs. She was interviewed by Sarao who was impressed with her intellect and determination. The opportunity came as a surprise to her but because she was tuned into USF’s global orientation, she had an advantage.

I did not think at first that I was prepared for this honor at all,” she said. “As soon as I arrived, I realized that there was a lot I did not know and quickly felt that my possible contributions might be dwarfed in value to those of others. However, during the first roundtable meeting, it was clear to me that I was the only delegate in my panel who had traveled to the Middle East (Israel, Jordan and Egypt), and could offer insights, if not scholarly, about the effect of U.S. foreign policy in the region, evidenced by the growing anti-Americanism among the general public. In hindsight, it was my extensive travels through the Middle East, and my research about the Arab-Israeli peace process, which helped me prepare to some extent to represent USF.”

Though studying abroad in Jordan at the time, Vasquez knew the conference was well worth flying in for and worth taking a few days off from studying Arabic II, the Arab-Israeli conflict, U.S.-Middle East relations, and history of the Arab World.

I hoped that I would have a chance to network with delegates who will be the future leaders in the field of international relations,” she said.

Germeroth first met Sarao when she was an AROTC cadet and held the position of vice president of the Joint Military Association where he was the USF faculty advisor. She was aware of upperclassmen attending the conference but didn’t give it much thought. When she was recommended by the Army ROTC professor of military science, LTC Alexander Espinosa, she was very happy to find that this prestigious opportunity was being presented to her. 

“I was very excited, but honestly didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “I was excited to go to Annapolis, because I am from Maryland (Baltimore) and I was excited to be heading to the Naval Academy because it is beautiful.”

What she found most memorable, she says, were the people.

“It was amazing to hear the different perspectives of the delegates. I learned so much in those roundtable sessions because we were able to all talk freely,” she said. “Some of these individuals work at their countries’ embassies in D.C., or will be future officers from all branches that we will be working with in the very near future. The contacts that I made during this conference, I am sure, will go a long way at some point in my career. The guest speakers gave insightful and relevant advice and the opportunity to question the best and the brightest individuals who are considered experts in their field proved to be an invaluable learning experience.”

A few of those speakers stood out for Germeroth.

“The first one, William J.A. Miller (director of strategy, plans and policy for United States Special Operations Command) had an excellent presentation on leadership and the difference between complex and complicated problems.”

And there was keynote speaker Admiral McRaven. He “had an incredible presentation on the nature of leadership and overcoming obstacles and setbacks.”

That speech also left a lasting impression on Vasquez, a Cuban émigré who came to the U.S. at the age of 14 after living in Chile for a year and has lived in Tampa ever since. 

“My most memorable experience was when Admiral McRaven concluded his speech by playing the song ‘God Bless the USA.’ All the delegates, midshipmen, conference speakers and moderators stood in unison, holding hands, and chanting along the lines, ‘I am proud to be an American’ and ‘God bless the USA.’ An immense flood of joy and patriotism followed the conclusion of the song. I remembered hugging fellow delegates I found around me, all of us overcome by emotion. I will always cherish that precious moment.”

Vasquez plans to work toward a master’ degree in international relations and conflict resolution and ultimately become a State Department Foreign Service officer, specializing in the Middle East. She wants to help broker a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. 

She is also volunteering at a Palestinian refugee camp in the city of Baqaa. Studying in a center of world events coupled with attending the conference constitute yet another life changing period of her life. “It's been an amazing three months,” she said.

This has been an exciting time for Germeroth as well. She graduated in May as a commissioned second lieutenant in the Army Medical Service Corps. Her major was international studies with a minor in psychology.   

“I am working for Army ROTC as their Gold Bar Recruiter until August, then I’m off to Ft. Sam Houston Texas for training until November and then finally stationed in Ft. Hood, Texas starting in December. I would love to be stationed overseas at some point, Germany would be nice,” she said.

To make the most of the conference, the conference organizers recommend staying on top of current events through the news media and consulting think tanks and organizations for background material once the theme is announced. They post links to articles on their website.

Vasquez and Germeroth have additional advice.

“Study the theme of the conference, as well as the speakers' backgrounds, before you attend,” Vasquez said. “This will give you a clear idea of what possible questions you can ask, and what relevant information you can contribute to your roundtable discussions.”

Germeroth added, “Take notes. Write it all down because the experience will fly by and you learn so much in such a short period of time, if you want to get the full benefit of the conference you have to write it down. Talk to everyone and meet as many people as you can. This experience is one-of-a-kind.” 

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.