ALMA, Mich. — At the real United Nations, veto-wielding heavyweights like China, Russia and the United States dominate. In the college version, the unlikely superpower hails from rural central Michigan: tiny Alma College.
More than 5,000 college students from 44 countries arrive this weekend in New York for the world's largest college Model United Nations competition, among them the likes of the Universities of Vienna and California-Berkeley. But it's Alma, with barely 1,400 students – virtually all of them from in-state – that's taken home at least one of the top "outstanding delegation" prizes 15 straight years. Under hard-driving coach Derick "Sandy" Hulme, it's won 28 overall, the most of any institution.
"We downplay the competitive aspect of it because there are awards but it isn't supposed to be all about that," said Michael Eaton, executive director of the National Collegiate Conference Association, which sponsors the New York event. "But they are just an incredible group."
If no college can match Alma's record, it's because no other college has the likes of Hulme, a wiry political science professor and one-time Division III track All-America who'd barely heard of Model U.N. when he arrived at Alma 20 years ago and had the small program dumped in his lap. Now it's an all-consuming passion, a juggernaut of amateur diplomacy he treats unapologetically like a sport. He's lucky it's not. Otherwise, his relentless training regimen would have run afoul of NCAA practice-time limits long ago.
For Alma, the program's success is a way to attract bright students from beyond Michigan. Last fall college president Jeff Abernathy dispatched Hulme on his first recruiting trip, and some interested high school students are accompanying the group to New York (another perk of falling outside NCAA oversight: no recruiting restrictions).
Part academic extracurricular, part fierce competition, Model U.N. has been surging in popularity at colleges, high schools and even middle schools. Delegates simulate the negotiating work of the real U.N., representing various countries and hammering out agreements on issues like terrorism or the environment. Success requires mastering the issues, the acronym-strewn U.N. bureaucracy, and the art of diplomatic persuasion.
All of that, in turn, requires a lot of work.
On a recent Tuesday at Alma, all that was missing from Hulme's routine was a coaching whistle. He was booked all day with one-on-one and small-group sessions, drilling students on assigned topics. One, a poised freshman named Lisa Folkmire, mostly held her own as Hulme peppered her with questions on the intricacies of U.N. microfinance programs (it's a good thing when Hulme cuts you off, students say; it means you know the answer and he wants to move on).
After dinner, students return at 7 for a for-credit class where the training continues. Class starts with Hulme interrogating students on world leaders and U.N. acronyms. Then they break into smaller groups, where students give three-minute speeches on weekly topics, followed by critiques, then "teach-ins" by older students on topics like human trafficking. Altogether, they usually run past 10 p.m.
On campus, the program's success is well known (team members are easy to pick out by the big briefing binders they carry). They haven't quite displaced the jocks in Alma's social hierarchy, but they do carry a certain "Glee"-like swagger of extracurricular greatness – or at least devotion. As if their sometimes 30-plus hours a week together aren't enough, a half-dozen hard-core participants live together in a Model U.N. house on campus, featuring a giant U.N. logo across the front (and, perhaps surprisingly, a yard sign planted by one resident in support of Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, an ardent U.N. critic. While the students love Model U.N., an up-close view of the real United Nations leaves some unimpressed).
Hulme's recipe for Model U.N. greatness: study hard, practice public speaking – and do the little things. His students are Olympian eye-contactors. He tells them to stand out through a "personal brand" – a bow tie, a noticeable pin – to draw attention. Sartorial advice takes up two of the 32 densely packed pages of the "Alma College Model United Nations Guide" that students more or less memorize.
"My T-shirts, they're all basically Easter-egg colors – bright orange, yellow, bright green," says junior Christopher Bilski, one of the more fanatical students. "It's about doing the little things in conference that distinguishes the good model U.N.ers from great Model U.N.ers." He says he's learned more from Model U.N. than from any of his traditional classes.
In fact, the students aren't all academic stars. Hulme says their average GPA is about the campus average. Model U.N., he says, "can transform the very best student's life and the students who are struggling." It can tap a passion in anyone that inspires them to do the work.
"When you find something you're interested in, whether its human rights issues or climate change issues, people tend to work harder," Bilski said.
Next year, he plans to coach a high school team, and perhaps help out at Alma after graduation, en route to law school. He's writing a thesis on how to succeed in Model U.N., and says the program is the No. 1 reason he picked Alma.
Alma wants – and needs – to recruit students like Bilski. Founded in 1886, it's part of a vulnerable band of perhaps a few hundred less-than-famous liberal arts colleges nationwide. Abernathy admits the liberal arts learning model is a tough sell to increasingly career-focused students. Alma faces the added obstacle of a rural location in the only state that lost population over the last decade.
To boost enrollment, Alma's recently added four NCAA sports – men's and women's lacrosse, women's bowling and men's wrestling – plus competitive cheer. But Model U.N. is an especially attractive recruiting tool, in two ways.
First, it exudes global outlook and opportunities. Many of Hulme's students have never been on a plane until their first Model U.N. trip. But a $2 million gift from an alumnus supports both Model U.N. and a fellowship that's sent many participants on summer projects in countries like Sierra Leone and the Philippines. Model U.N. participants have helped Alma punch above its weight with postgraduate fellowships; the program has produced four Truman Scholars, nine Fulbright Scholars, and two Gates-Cambridge Scholars.
Second, Model U.N. success helps Alma make the case for the value and even fun of a liberal arts education. The mental skills it exercises are an almost perfect distillation of what colleges like Alma hope their students will learn.
Winning at Model U.N. takes an ability to research and synthesize information. To form an argument. To speak confidently in public. And show empathy, if not sympathy, by seeing the world through the perspectives of the countries they are assigned to represent. (Last year Alma had to speak for Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya, which had not yet collapsed; they won a prize anyway. This year, the freshman-heavy squad must make a splash with two countries much lower on the radar: Gambia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines).
Says Abernathy: "What these students do matches what we want all our students to do."
"It gives people a lot of confidence, poise and public speaking skills," said Brandon Miller, a 1998 graduate who worked at the U.N., spent four years in the Peace Corps, and is now a lawyer in Washington, D.C. He recalls the thrill of addressing 2,000 people in the General Assembly as a 19-year-old from a tiny town in Michigan, the first in his family to go to college.
From Model U.N., he says, he learned communication, multi-cultural and teamwork skills that come into play constantly in his career. The No. 1 most essential workplace skill is actually guiding an unwieldy group forward – which is exactly what Model U.N. judges are measuring.
"You have to be assertive," Miller says. "But you can't be a jerk."
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