Conference on World Affairs
International flags line a sidewalk in Norlin Quad during the annual Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado Boulder. Photo by Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado

7 Reasons Why You Want to Visit the Conference on World Affairs


You’ve heard the hypothetical question: If you could sit down and chat with one influential person, who would it be and what would you ask?

In a way, that’s the heart of a unique, annual event in Boulder.

It’s called the Conference on World Affairs. The week-long event brings more than 100 guests — often influencers, innovators and experts on a wide variety of topics, from international affairs to nuclear power to gender communication and storytelling — to free, public discussions on the University of Colorado campus. Topics are loosely designated and a moderator keeps things on task, but ultimately, the direction of the panel flows with the natural discussions between panelists and questions from the audience.

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Some discussions are small and intimate, whereas others pack large theaters, but audience interaction is always an important piece of the experience.

The panelists and topics change every year, which draws many repeat attendees. The five-day conference attracts more than 70,000 attendants every year.

Because it’s totally free and also uniquely entertaining and educational, the Conference on World Affairs is one of our favorite things to do in Boulder every April.

Here are seven more reasons why you should add the CWA to your Travel Boulder bucket list.

1. The rich history.

The CWA was launched in 1948. It has a long history in Boulder and attracts people from around the world.

2. The entertainment.

Among the 100 guests, you’ll also find performers. You may hear singing, storytelling, poetry, heated arguments or ideas that challenge your beliefs. The New York Times has called the CWA a “week-long extravaganza of discussion and debate.”

The CWA also includes a free jazz concert and an event called Ebert Interruptus, where a movie is first screened and then dissected over the next four days, chunk by chunk, to examine anything from the production, writing, filming, plot, acting — you name it. It is a practice in conscious consumption of the screen.

“It’s a lot more than just panels. There’s so much more,” says Erin Rain, spokesperson for the conference. 

Also look for a 3-D interactive performance with dance and visual arts, a poetry slam and an interactive round-table chat.

“We have the traditional sessions like we always do, but we’re trying to keep it modern and fun for the students and the community,” Rain says.

Conference on World Affairs
A panel at the Conference on World Affairs. Courtesy photo

3. The diversity.

Attendees can choose from more than 200 sessions over the five-day event and mix and match their schedule based on their interests. As the name implies, the conference began as a place to discuss international affairs, but it has grown to span everything from business to film, medicine to human rights. You may also learn about pop culture, science, art, music, technology and more.

4. The fame.

A big part of the CWA’s history is its connection to Roger Ebert. (Yes, the Ebert.) He was involved for four decades.

Other notable participants have included Patch Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ted Turner, Henry Kissinger, Arianna Huffington and Ralph Nader, to name a few.

Conference on World Affairs
The Conference on World Affairs in Boulder. Courtesy photo

5. The community.

As a free event, the CWA relies on volunteers, and some of the even well-known speakers waive their typical fees to donate their time to the discussions. This creates a different atmosphere than an expensive, profitable gathering. Even packed with notable leaders, the CWA retains a personal grassroots feeling; everyone who’s there really wants to be there and cares about inspiring thought and discussion. They’re not just trying to make a buck.

6. The students.

Located on the CU campus, the CWA gives preference to students. Students get priority seating and get to head to the front of the line to ask questions. Some teachers request their students attend the panels.

If you have the free CWA app, you can text in your questions, too. Students note their questions with the word “student” and get dibs.

7. The unpredictability.

One of the things that makes these panels so interesting is that typically half of the speakers are experts in the field and the rest are not. The goal: Spark new ideas and approaches to the issues and bring people together who might not otherwise share ideas about a topic. That’s also why the panels are not overly structured. Speakers get a one-sentence description and that’s all.

Another fun fact: The panel topics all stem from the speakers, and with a steady stream of new speakers every year (along with some repeats), panel ideas are constantly shifting.

Conference on World Affairs
Flags for the Conference on World Affairs. Courtesy photo

Local Tips

Here are some local tips on how to get the most out of the Conference on World Affairs.

  • You don’t need to register for events to attend.
  • Get help designing your custom schedule with the free CWA app.
  • Stay flexible. It’s common for details to change, even last minute. Check the web or the app for the most recent info.
  • Can’t attend an event in person? The website will live stream some of the bigger discussions for free and the CWA YouTube channel will serve as an archive for previous recordings, so you can revisit for years to come. Even remotely, you can submit questions to the panelists via the app, so you can stay involved live.
  • While the CWA Jazz Concert is free and open to the public, the tickets go fast. You can reserve a guaranteed ticket by making a donation to the CWA; membership benefits include two jazz tickets and other perks. Members also get priority seating. Otherwise, enroll in the ticket lottery.
  • Leave your car at the hotel and take public transportation to campus. There’s limited parking at CU during the day and it can be extremely grueling to try to find a spot on University Hill. If you’re not staying in town, park on the third level of the Macy’s parking garage at the Twenty Ninth Street Mall and take the bus for free to campus. Check the CWA app for more parking info.
  • Consider attending the evening events, when parking on campus opens up for free for anyone. Also look for other evening events throughout town, like at the Dairy Arts Center.
  • Ask hotels about CWA specials. Several, including the Hotel Boulderado, offer special rates to attendees.

The Conference on World Affairs 2017

This year marks the Conference on World Affairs’ 69th year. It runs April 10-14.

The 2017 CWA is taking a different approach than years past. This year, the conference has organized many panels into three themes, or tracks: Space Exploration, Democracy Now and The Future of Food. Organizers hope this makes it easier for attendees to select their panels and provides a new focus and depth to the conference.

This was a natural evolution, says Rain. The conference invites a large number of speakers every year and they never know who will be able to attend, due to schedules and the fact that involvement is voluntary. Rain says when they noticed that a large number of speakers fell into the same three categories, they decided to organize it that way and see how it works. If it is well received, she says they may repeat categorizing the topics in the future with different category focuses.

Other highlights this year include:

  • Speakers from 19 different countries.
  • Speakers, including Dava Newman, who served as the deputy administrator of NASA; Chris Borland, former NFL linebacker; Joe Cirincione, who oversaw nuclear weapons programs in the U.S. House; and Amy Fox, screenwriter and playwright.
  • More evening events for people who work or are unavailable during the day.
  • More venues spread across campus offering events at the same time (so if your first choice is filled, there’s something else you can attend).

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