Student panelists prepare for important role at Domenici Public Policy Conference

Spetember 8, 2014 by Amanda Bradford, NMSU News Center

University of New Mexico student Holly Marquez asks a question during the 2013 Domenici Public Policy Conference hosted by NMSU at the Las Cruces Convention Center. Marquez was one of 20 student panelists selected to ask questions of the speakers at the conference. (Photo by Niki Rhynes)

University of New Mexico student Holly Marquez asks a question during the 2013 Domenici Public Policy Conference hosted by NMSU at the Las Cruces Convention Center. Marquez was one of 20 student panelists selected to ask questions of the speakers at the conference. (Photo by Niki Rhynes)

Specially selected students from across New Mexico have spent the recent months preparing for their opportunity to learn from and question national and international policymakers and experts as part of the 2014 Domenici Public Policy Conference, hosted by New Mexico State University on Sept. 17 and 18 at the Las Cruces Convention Center.

The 20 students come from NMSU, University of New Mexico, Eastern New Mexico University, New Mexico Tech, St. John’s College and Western New Mexico University, and were nominated by faculty and administrators at their schools and selected by a committee of the Domenici Institute’s Advisory Council.

The students work together in teams during the summer to research and develop questions for each speaker, with guidance and feedback from committee members. This year’s lineup of speakers includes former U.S. Secretary of Defense and former CIA Director Leon Panetta, former U.S. counterintelligence head and inspector general of the National Security Agency Joel Brenner and national political strategists Donna Brazile and Charlie Black, among many others.

The following students have been selected for the 2014 Domenici Public Policy Conference Student Panel:

  • Elisabeth Sallberg, ENMU
  • Sarah Szymonski, ENMU
  • Christine Dobisch, NMSU
  • Noel Martinez, NMSU
  • Jessica Nunn, NMSU
  • Sage Peterson, NMSU
  • Vanessa Putnam, NMSU
  • Kathryn Sanchez, NMSU
  • Adam Sayre, NMSU
  • Ismael Torres, NMSU
  • Cassandra Rodarte, NMT
  • Allen Matsika, St. John’s College
  • Rosstin Ahmadian, UNM
  • Melissa Auh, UNM
  • Emma Grazier, UNM
  • Megan Kashmer, UNM
  • Hunter Thompson, UNM
  • Xochitl Torres Small, UNM
  • Nicole Taylor, UNM
  • Genesis Martinez, WNMU

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. The student panelist program gives them a rare chance to speak with men and women who help shape national policy.

Elisabeth Sallberg, a senior at Eastern New Mexico University double majoring in political science and history with a minor in economics, said participating in the conference has added a project to her college experience rooted in reality, rather than theory.

“It provides a useful bridge between the academic world of the university, and the empirical world of the workforce I will soon be entering,” she said.

Sallberg is team leader for the student group preparing questions for Brenner.

“I’m looking forward to Mr. Brenner’s talk on cyber espionage and Secretary Panetta’s presentation on national defense, because the preservation of the United States depends on insightful actions in these areas,” Sallberg said.

NMSU President Garrey Carruthers, who is also director of the Domenici Institute, said the panelists’ role as the audience’s voice during the conference enhances the experience for everyone – even the speakers.

“We’ve had past speakers tell us again and again how impressed they were by the poise and preparation of our student panelists,” Carruthers said. “This isn’t just a learning opportunity for these students – it’s a chance to discover that they’re capable of making a meaningful contribution to the national conversation.”

Jessica Nunn, a graduate student in communication disorders at NMSU, said the conference preparation has required a lot of self-discipline, but the collaboration has been really rewarding, because each student brings something different to the discussion. Nunn’s team is preparing questions for Panetta.

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to learn from the participating speakers, especially because the preparation has helped me feel more invested in their topics,” Nunn said. “It has helped me develop research and critical thinking skills, and I better understand the importance of collaboration and good communication.”

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 dinner the evening before the conference.

“The Domenici Public Policy Conference provides a wonderful opportunity for the student panelists,” said Craig Buchanan, market president for U.S. Bank in Las Cruces. “It’s always rewarding for us to support this valuable part of the program.”

Alfred Valdez, an NMSU assistant professor in special education and communication disorders and head of the selection committee, said this group of panelists has learned a great deal, and articulated that knowledge in their questions.

“Last year, I saw such a transformation in terms of poise and confidence among the panelists as the conference came to close,” Valdez said. “Each one felt they had accomplished an amazing goal – and they had. I look forward to seeing that same transformation from our current panelists.”

The conference itself is supported by generous contributions from regional and national sponsors. For more information about conference sponsors, visit the sponsor page at

The 2014 Domenici Public Policy Conference costs $50 to attend. Online registration and more information, including a complete agenda, are available at 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.

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