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Model UN Conferences Expand Students' Horizons

  • Kathie Scarrah

Every year, more than 200,000 high school and college students around the world experience how the United Nations General Assembly and other multilateral organizations work by attending a "Model UN" conference. The conferences are also designed to educate student delegates about world issues and promote peace and the work of the UN through cooperation and diplomacy.

It may not look like UN headquarters in New York, but this building on the campus of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. recently hosted more than 500 high school student delegates attending a "Model U.N." conference.

Student delegates represent 191 UN member states, assuming the role of Ambassadors. By participating in simulations of the UN General Assembly, student delegates learn about the international affairs decisions made daily by diplomats and world leaders. The underlying goal of every conference is to inform student delegates about the decisions their nation makes in foreign policy and how those decisions affect national, regional and global politics.

Delegates debate issues such as UN reform, the use of force, humanitarian assistance and state sponsored terrorism.

Ambassador Karl Inderfurth, former Deputy U.S. Representative on the U.N. Security Council now teaches at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. He says Model UN delegates are the future of the United Nations.

"I think that to allow young people to work in the Model UN program, to learn what other countries are thinking, to take on the role of, you know, an Ecuador or a Bangladesh or a Russia to express themselves, to understand the views of those countries as they operate within the Security Council or the General Assembly is a great way to put ourselves in the skin of others to see where they're coming from. And we need more of that; we need more of that not only at the student level, but also when they go into careers in international affairs. This is a lasting, long-lasting experience and I'm convinced that it's a positive one," says Ambassador Inderfurth.

Jonathan Katz is a high school sophomore from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who was struck by the voice each nation has in the General Assembly. He represented Venezuela at the conference.

"We don't usually hear about the smaller nations. But with the United Nations, the Model UN, we got a chance to see all the nations represented and I think that's important," says Jonathan.

Jessica Turnbull, a high school senior who is also from Pittsburgh, hopes her Model UN experience will help her when she begins college later this year. She says, "This was a great way to talk about issues and then to also talk about foreign policy, which is something a lot of teenagers aren't really interested in.”

Proponents of Model UN conferences say the exercises introduce delegates to consensus building, conflict resolution, compromise and cooperation. Eamon Downey, a Model UN faculty adviser from Princeton, New Jersey has been involved with the program for more than two decades.

"Getting on these committees and dealing with, whether it's refugees in Darfur or all these other international problems that need to be resolved, it really does expand their horizons," says Mr. Downey.

Many Model UN student delegates go on to high profile careers. The list includes former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.