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Student panelists are audience's voice at Domenici Public Policy Conference

Twenty specially selected students from across New Mexico will have a rare opportunity to connect with national and international policymakers and experts as part of the 2013 Domenici Public Policy Conference, hosted by New Mexico State University on Sept. 18 and 19 at the Las Cruces Convention Center.

NMSU student Gabriella Ferrari asks a question.
New Mexico State University student Gabriella Ferrari asks a question during the 2012 Domenici Public Policy Conference hosted by NMSU at the Las Cruces Convention Center. Ferrari was one of 20 student panelists selected to ask questions of the speakers at the conference. (Photo by Niki Rhynes)
NMSU student Zackary Quintero asks a question.
New Mexico State University student Zackary Quintero asks a question during the 2012 Domenici Public Policy Conference hosted by NMSU at the Las Cruces Convention Center. Quintero was one of 20 student panelists selected to ask questions of the speakers at the conference. (Photo by Niki Rhynes)

The students, who hail from NMSU, University of New Mexico, Eastern New Mexico University, New Mexico Highlands University, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Northern New Mexico College and Western New Mexico University, were nominated by faculty and administrators at their schools and selected by a committee of the Domenici Institute's Advisory Council.

Alfred Valdez, an NMSU assistant professor in special education and communication disorders and head of the selection committee, said he's pleased to see more universities represented on the panel this year. The students, who are working together in teams to research and develop questions for each speaker, have already impressed the committee members who are helping them prepare, he said.

When the Domenici Conference debuted in 2008, any member of the audience could ask questions of speakers. But because the Domenici Institute is housed on the NMSU campus, conference organizers wanted students to have a meaningful connection to the event, and the Domenici Student Panelist program was born.

Veena Patel, a biology and psychology double major at UNM, said her background in medical research has her keenly interested in the debate on health care reform and how Washington policymaking will affect the future of science and medicine in the U.S. and New Mexico. Patel's team is developing questions for retired U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, who will discuss health policy at the conference.

"I'm excited by the prospect of learning firsthand how the federal agenda will affect New Mexicans," Patel said. "I hope that my team's panel discussion will provide a voice to other students who may be concerned by issues such as health insurance coverage or global health epidemics."

NMSU President Garrey Carruthers, who is also director of the Domenici Institute, said the students' unique role as the only participants allowed to ask questions of the presenters is a vital part of the conference.

"The Domenici Conference brings together a valuable academic experience and a civics lesson that leaves a strong impression on these students," Carruthers said. "It's an opportunity for them to discover their voice and make a meaningful contribution to the public discourse on these important topics."

Jennifer Ward, a philosophy major who is minoring in government at NMSU, said preparing for the conference has been an interesting and valuable learning experience. She's preparing questions for former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who will be speaking about the Arab Spring and other current events in the Middle East.

"I have learned a lot about the Middle East while preparing for this conference," she said. "I am very pleased to have gotten on this team because I feel like I am researching one of the most important questions for Americans today."

The Domenici Student Panelist program is supported again this year by a $10,000 sponsorship from U.S. Bank, which will provide each student panelist with a $250 U.S. Bank Visa gift card and cover the cost of the students' hotel accommodations in Las Cruces. Students will also participate in an orientation banquet the evening before the conference.

"One important mission of the Domenici Public Policy Conference is to provide a unique learning experience for students from across the state," said Craig Buchanan, market president for U.S. Bank in Las Cruces. "We wanted to make the conference more accessible to prospective panelists by ensuring that cost was not an obstacle to participating. We're proud to support the conference in this way."

Valdez said helping the students in his role on the selection committee has been an eye-opening experience, and he hopes the panelists find themselves similarly changed by the conference.

"I hope this whole experience of meeting some of the top policy experts in the country has an impact on how they see themselves and what they can accomplish," he said.

The 2013 Domenici Public Policy Conference costs $50 to attend. Online registration and more information, including a complete agenda, are available at domenici.nmsu.edu. The event is free for university students to attend. For more information or to register by phone, call the Domenici Institute at 575-646-2066.