Gymnast Lauren Cahalan represents TU at Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference

By Ray Feldmann on June 13, 2017

“It was wonderful to get more of a military perspective on foreign affairs. It totally changed my perspective on foreign relations. It was like nothing you can learn in a classroom.”

Senior Towson University gymnast Lauren Cahalan, right, and the Naval Academy's Alexis Opferman, sit in the Nimitz Library during the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference.
Senior Towson University gymnast Lauren Cahalan, right, and the Naval Academy's Alexis Opferman, sit in the Nimitz Library during the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference.

Lauren Cahalan sat attentively behind a drab gray table in an unremarkable classroom in the basement of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Nimitz Library. But there was nothing the least bit unremarkable about her presence in this room on this particular day.

A rising senior from Reisterstown, Md., Cahalan was the only student from Towson University selected this year to attend the prestigious Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference, or NAFAC.  Last year, TU was capably represented by recent TU graduate Savannah Wilhelm.

In fact, it was Wihelm who originally tipped off Cahalan about attending the conference.

“Savannah told me about it and I thought it sounded fascinating,” Cahalan recalled.  “Dr. Allison McCartney of our political science department was very supportive of me participating. She actually recommended me for the conference.”

Based on that recommendation, Cahalan then worked closely with Dr. Robert Rook, a professor in TU’s Department of History and the Director of Interdisciplinary Studies, who also serves as the university’s liaison with the NAFAC conference.

Rook has been a participant in the U.S. Navy’s Regional Security Education Program since 2007.

“We were thrilled and honored to have Lauren selected to participate in NAFAC and represent Towson University,” Rook said, “especially after Savannah participated last year.”

Last month, Cahalan -- who is also a member of Towson University’s gymnastics team – spent four days and three nights at NAFAC on the grounds of the picturesque Naval Academy campus in Annapolis, Maryland. She spent three full days soaking in lectures, presentations, and stimulating foreign policy discussions that, by her own admission, were unlike those she regular experiences on her own campus.

Lauren Cahalan Gymnast
Along with representing TU at the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference, Cahalan also represents the university as part of TU's gymnastics team. 

During her second night at NAFAC, the 20-year-old Dulaney High School graduate joined the 4,000+ Brigade of Midshipmen at a Forrestal Lecture, named after James Forrestal, the last Cabinet-level U. S. Secretary of the Navy and the first Secretary of Defense. Retired U.S. Marine General John R. Allen, former Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was the featured speaker.

The impact of his subject matter was not lost on the civilian gymnast.

“It was incredible to hear him speak about the dark side of war,” Cahalan recalled.

The next morning, NAFAC attendees heard from Dr. Kathleen Hicks, director of the International Security Program at the prestigious Center for Strategic and International Studies. Afterwards, Cahalan participated in a roundtable panel discussion entitled, “Why Can’t We Be Friends? Great Power Cooperation and the Role of International Organizations and Agreements.”

In that unremarkable Nimitz Library classroom, Cahalan stood out from many of the others in the room, most of whom are wearing their black “working” USNA uniform of the day. Cahalan, by contrast, wore a fashionable black sleeveless dress trimmed in white.

Despite their outward appearances, Cahalan wasn’t that different from the young female Midshipman sitting immediately to her right, senior (or “firstie” in Academy slang) Alexis Opferman from Reno, Nevada. A member of the Navy women’s cross-country team, Opferman chose the Academy out of a sense of duty and service to her country.

“I wanted to have an adventure,” Opferman explained of her decision to apply to USNA, “and an opportunity to lead people, along with the whole service component thing.”

Although their lives will be dramatically different after they graduate from their respective institutions, on this spring day Cahalan and Opferman seemed to have far more similarities than differences.

During the hour-and-a-half roundtable discussion, the two remarkable young women and their NAFAC colleagues discussed a wide range of topics, including the Trump presidency, the Obama presidency, United States foreign policy, chemical warfare, and pathways to peaceful collaboration between nations.

“I’ve never been in an environment where there was so much amazing dialogue about everything that is going on in the world, and its impact on the United States and U.S. military,” Cahalan said.  “I learned just as much from my peers and the Midshipmen as I did from the speakers.”

Reflecting the three-day NAFAC conference, Cahalan said it was one of the most rewarding experiences of her three years at Towson University thus far.

“It was wonderful to get more of a military perspective on foreign affairs,” Cahalan said.  “It totally changed my perspective on foreign relations. It was like nothing you can learn in a classroom.”

Cahalan will complete her final year at TU this fall and next spring. After that, she is hoping to apply everything she has learned and work for the federal government doing research and analysis. She also plans to go to grad school to study international relations with a track in economics. 

This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel's priorities for Towson University: Strategic Plan Alignment.