Model United Nations wrestles with momentous challenges, and abides

1st December 2020

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–There was a chance that the high school and collegiate Model United Nations, two mainstays of the IU Southeast academic year, would join the long list of events scratched in the wake of, well, 2020.

Although deprived of its traditional in-person venue as well as long-serving leadership, with the retirement of Dr. Cliff Staten, and amid the howling storm of vitriolic partisanship raging across the public space during the election cycle, these exercises in diplomacy and civility somehow came to pass.

It was more than a win. It was a statement.

Not that it was easy.

Dr. Margot Morgan, assistant professor of political science, inherited the leadership mantle from Staten, and ensured that both high school and collegiate events were a success.

Faced with a compressed time scale and no possibility of an in-person venue for the collegiate Model UN, Morgan and the other faculty advisors in the Indiana Consortium for International programs joined an existing online event, The College of the Canyons Model UN Conference.

This conference brought together hundreds of students from 15 colleges and universities. Five IU Southeast students took part: Thomas Kalonji, Dannon Olsen, Clayton Gulley, Cristina Cordova Paz and Rebekah Smith. All were new to Model UN, which might have been a benefit, since the structure and procedures of this year’s conference differed markedly from what Morgan and other members of the consortium were accustomed to.

The conference did not involve a plenary Security Council that discussed a range of issues while reacting to unexpected developments injected by faculty advisors, but instead divided students into smaller working groups in three focus areas: UN Human Rights Councils, the Disarmament and International Security Committee (DISEC), and the World Health Organization.

On top of this, the gathering used a conferencing platform, Discord, that was new to the IU Southeast participants.

Cristina Cordova Paz, a Masters in Interdisciplinary Studies student from Oaxaca, Mexico, was frustrated by factors such as long hours on Zoom, the inability to mingle with other diplomats for informal policy-related sidebars, as well as the demands of writing and speaking under pressure. Still, she found avenues for growth.

“This conference allows me to understand the role of a real delegate of a country and what that person does or does not at the United Nations,” Cordova Paz said.

Morgan was impressed by how well the students adapted to the technological and organizational curveballs.

“They had done a lot of preparation on both their issue and their country, and I had confidence in their ability to do well at the conference,” Morgan said. “Given all that they were facing, and given they were new to the Model UN world, I’d say they did stellar work.”

To her point, Clayton Gulley won honorable mention for his work on the UN Human Rights Council.

The High School Model UN was hit with numerous last-minute cancellations, but IU Southeast and University of Louisville students stepped in to help, as did Dr. Jean Abshire, associate professor of political science. Abshire delivered the keynote address to the participants from five schools, and also took part in the role-play as a representative of the Rohingya people.

Issues included the UN’s role in the Colombian peace process, the crisis between Israel and Gaza over Israeli settlements, the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya.

For Morgan, this year’s Model UN was especially meaningful, in view of the many challenges confronting human society, challenges for which the search for consensus will be crucial to ensuring the survival of the species.

As big as the issues are, the solutions start small, on the interpersonal level, where individuals need to learn how to express their point of view with respect for the ideas of others.

“It is hard to discuss politics right now–either at home, on the internet, or in a public place–without fear of being attacked or judged,” Morgan said. “Model UN gives students the opportunity to develop skills of diplomacy and cooperation in a safe space.”

Keeping that opportunity alive, in a year when it is needed most, was paramount for Morgan and the faculty advisors and students who overcame disaster and distraction to make the event happen.

“The high school students that learn how to talk respectfully with those they disagree with and discover areas of common ground that are not readily apparent are the students that will one day run our country,” Morgan said.

Homepage photo: Chickenonline from Pixabay.

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