On a wintry Thursday evening, a motley group of high school students clad in Western business attire shuffle about the modest library of Branford High School in southern Connecticut. They are fiercely debating different methods of punitive action to be levied against the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea, in response to a scalding 2014 U.N. report detailing rampant human rights abuse in the "Hermit Kingdom".
"Are all of you here in support of increased sanctions to place enough economic pressure on North Korea to coerce them into scaling back their forced labor camps?" a representative of the United States asks a group of international delegates.
"I believe you mean the alleged labor camps, as there is no tangible proof of their use or even their existence," responds a representative of North Korea.
"No, I mean the labor camps whose existence your U.N. ambassador confirmed just last week," shoots back the U.S. delegate.
No, this isn't some impromptu argument over personal political opinions. This is just another "practice conference" or "mini-conference" held by the school's nascent Model United Nations club.
So what is this "Model United Nations"? Model U.N., or MUN, is essentially a simulation of the many unilateral bodies of the United Nations in which high school or college students represent a nation and advocate for their views on a particular issue. In the example above, Branford High School students were each representing some of the world's preeminent powers congregating to discuss human rights violations in North Korea. However, Model U.N. is much more than simply playing "make-believe", and truly disseminates some of the most valuable skills and lessons to ambitious young adults.
At its core, Model U.N. is a learning experience. The general goal is to give students an opportunity to learn current events by experiencing them firsthand. It enhances young people's understanding of diplomacy and real international affairs far beyond any textbook or lecture could, because quite simply Model U.N. throws students directly into the fire. Students, just like real-life diplomats, must be able to react on their feet to developing crises or to unexpected debates with a dissenting nation, drawing from their extensive research to quickly justify and defend their position.
Moreover, students are allowed an opportunity to educate themselves about the issues the world faces today and potential solutions, the diversity of the world and the cultures of nations they never would've learned about otherwise, and invaluable skills including negotiation, compromise, and public speaking. Model U.N doesn't simply give a student a greater understanding of Roberts Rules of Order or population statistics; it gives students a greater understanding of the world we inhabit, and the others around us.
Prior to my joining Model U.N., had I been asked about the growing presence of hydropower electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa, or the critical and complex relationship between Russia and India, or why the United Kingdom wishes to distance itself from the European Union, I would've had no choice but to remain silent. But now, I have the confidence to go head-to-head in an intelligent, serious conversation with my peers or even adults on a wide-ranging variety of global issues and developments.
Now, something that is important to get across is that I was never in a committee regarding those topics I just mentioned. I've participated in various committees about various topics, but never have I been asked to specifically research the topics in the above paragraph. Instead, MUN has fostered in me a desire not only to learn, but to thoroughly understand, the issues faced by people around the world. My participation in MUN has inspired me to look at the world differently; to look at a problem and think, "How could that be solved?" rather than "There's no way I could find a solution to that, I'll just leave it to the Presidents and Prime Ministers and Secretary-Generals of the world." Instead, Model U.N. has taught me, and everyone else who participates in it, that all people have and deserve a voice, and that all people have the ability to understand complex issues so long as they try. I've learned to strive for knowledge, not simply for the sake of knowledge or for good grades, but for the purpose of applying it to our world's problems and, just maybe, finding a solution. I've learned that relationships are invariably complex but that all parties, whether they be individual people or entire nations, can always find some common ground simply on the basis of their shared humanity. I have learned that our elected officials who we so often bash do a much more difficult job than often credited them, and that unanimity among one nation, much less one world, is always a noble yet lofty and difficult goal.
It's hard to believe that I have learned all these countless indispensable lessons simply by "playing make-believe".
But no sensible mind can possibly call an educated, serious discussion on serious and pressing matters "make-believe", especially when the justification for that argument is often that those who comprise the conversation are young students. This is not fantasy, this is reality.
To all students who might be reading this right now, regardless of age or field of interest, this is my call to you: if you wish to heighten your understanding of the issues the world faces and the phenomena that now seem impossibly complex, if you wish to form new relationships with like-minded and intelligent students from around the world, if you wish to make yourself a more well-rounded student and person, participate in Model U.N. If your school already has a well-established club, do not hesitate to join, for your only regret will be not joining earlier. If your school has no such preexisting club, forge your own path and start one up yourself, as I did, if not just for you than for your school's posterity. If there is limited support from your school community for such a club, do not hesitate to deviate from the standard path and attend a conference as an independent.
This is a life-altering, knowledge-enhancing, skill-honing, learning experience that has proven time and time again to be invaluable to participants.
This is Model U.N. And this is why it matters.