Nearly 600 teenagers from across the United States recently converged on the nation's capital to debate real-world issues and crises, United Nations-style at a three-day gathering of parents, teachers, and some pretty idealistic high school students.
The so-called "model" United Nations conference is essentially a simulation of the way the real U.N. handles international disputes. About 400-thousand high school students take part in some 200 model U.N.conferences each year in the United States. The most recent one, held at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., drew nearly 600 students.
Katie Spoke, from the town of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, explained her role in the diplomatic simulation: "My role is China. We're talking about the [charges of genocide] in [Sudan's] Darfur region and how there's been just a lot of Arab attacks on the people and one of the goals for that is to see if genocide is being committed and making sure the right people are paying for the crimes."
Katie's mother Sandra traveled with her. "For the kids to be aware of the issues in the world - I think it's very important," she said. "They get very involved."
Many high school social studies teachers attended the conference with their students. Jean Leslie, from Avon Grove High School in West Grove, Pennsylvania, said her students did more than study to get ready. There was hard work to be done to earn the two-thousand dollars needed to pay for the bus trip.
"We did fundraising - car washes and the like," Ms. Leslie said. "We also hosted a 'diversity dinner' for our community, student performances, choir performances - just celebrating the diverse culture we come from in our area. We have a large Hispanic community."
Ms. Leslie said that when she and her group of 12 teenagers arrived at the Washington conference, the young people confided they had some ambivalence about their role at the event: organizers wanted them to defend some Middle Eastern countries traditionally hostile to the United States. Jean Leslie told them that that's what the model U.N. is all about.
"They feel torn between representing the country that they're supposed to be - sticking true to the simulation -- and also getting behind an argument that, as Americans, they don't agree with. It's hard to play that middle ground. I think that's a great opportunity because here are all these foreign diplomats Americans, who have to take that role. It's fun to watch them when they have to go out and eat meals together because they have been arguing so heatedly in these committees and conference groups. Then they walk out to lunch and they're high school kids again, having a good time, meeting new people."
As hundreds of high school students filled a conference hall at George Washington University during the recent opening session, chief organizer Paul Hrebenak, said the students would be learning history, geography, diplomacy, and negotiation skills. But Mr. Hrebenak, a senior at George Washington University, believes grown-ups have something to learn, too, from these young people.
"To see that these kids, over 600 kids, are interested in topics that adults might think kids don't care about -- but that's not true," he said. "Six hundred kids are willing to come to Washington, D.C., just to talk about the [refugee plight] situation in Darfur [Sudan], the [controversy over] E.U. [European Union] accession of Turkey, any countless number of issues. It's so counter to what society makes us think, that young people don't care about the world around them."
Indeed, many students said the model U.N. was inspiring, and made them think seriously about helping people around the world. Wisconsin high-schooler Katie Spoke said she's already thinking about a career in international affairs. "I'm thinking about being an interpreter, assistant to an ambassador -- some work in another country where I'm working in peace dealings in another country -- and stuff like that." Her sister Courtney foresees a career in medicine in an area of the world where medical care is badly needed. "I want to become a doctor and go to different countries, " she said. " This [model UN] helps. I'm not just thinking about myself but also about other people."
And Brian Fisher of Sleepy Hollow, New York, had confided to friends that he was "afraid to get up and talk" around older teenagers at the event. But he later decided to speak out on issues like child labor and women's rights in Sri Lanka. Though it was only a "model" U.N. conference, for Brian Fisher and many other teenagers, it was also a valuable real-life experience.