Students from across the United States assembled recently in New York City - home to the United Nations headquarters - for an annual Model United Nations, in which students seek to resolve fictional world problems.
In one scenario played out at the event, a student playing Syria's ambassador to the United Nations angrily confronts Turkey's delegate at a U.N. Security Council meeting during a fictional crisis.
Craig Hollander, a political science major at Columbia University, plays the role of the Syrian ambassador. A veteran of the Model U.N. program, he has become adept at fabricating crises. He says he draws heavily on current events.
Students from Columbia University and Hunter College, like Craig Hollander, take on the roles of senior U.N. officials. But Craig said, only a few of the Model U.N. organizers know all crisis details. They leak information as required and, sometimes posing as intelligence officers, call "delegates" in the middle of the night to provide them with vital information.
The 180 secondary school students participating in this year's Model U.N. will also face an Argentine beef crisis and the kidnapping of several U.S. Drug Enforcement Agents by leftist rebels in Columbia.
The role-playing goes beyond the United Nations to other international organizations. In a mock meeting of officials from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the issue of whether to accept or deny Brunei's petition to join OPEC, and the effect a war in Iraq might have on the oil market, are simultaneously up for debate.
Monique Woolnough, a high-school student from Toronto, Canada, is representing Algeria in the OPEC meeting. She said her experiences at the Model U.N. have been invaluable. "The process itself is so important, especially when you see people who have never done it before, and they come into their thinking about the rest of the world, which is something that, unfortunately, we don't do enough," she said.
The student "delegates" prepare draft resolutions, plot strategy, negotiate with supporters and adversaries, resolve conflicts and navigate U.N. procedures.
Erica Debruin, a political science major at Columbia University, plays the U.N. secretary-general and is enthusiastic about the project. "In high school, you're mostly lectured to, you memorize and have tests. In the model U.N., you are forced to look at things from a completely different perspective. Delegates will come and, instead of representing the view of their country, the view that they personally have, they have to look at an argument from another person's perspective, and argue from that," she explained. "Role playing is one of the best ways to understand the material, and have a really good time. It's a lot of fun for them, and a lot of fun for us. And hopefully, everyone's learning something as well," she said.
Erica Debruin said she dreams of a life in international diplomacy.