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MS Model UN Succeeds in Virtual Format

Like so many other annual events and competitions, the middle school Model UN Conference went virtual this year, but for 140 students from all four CHCCS middle schools, the change didn’t seem to dampen their enthusiasm. On Wednesday, April 14,  breakout rooms were filled with high-level discussions among the student delegations about the refugee crisis in Ethiopia created by the Tigray War.

Caroline Chen, a senior at East Chapel Hill High School, served as one of two secretaries-general for the event. “In sixth grade, I joined the Model UN club with no idea of what it was,” she said. “I was assigned to be a seemingly random, tiny country that had little to do with the topic of the conference that year. I was really confused and somewhat anxious about speaking in front of a room of strangers. Somehow, I still managed to fall in love with the club; with debating global issues with peers, compromising on solutions, and writing proposals to solve the problems.” 

Chen and fellow secretary-general, Chapel Hill High School senior, Benjamin Knight, brought their expertise and passion for this national program to their Zoom spaces, and the participants remained focused and energized until the closing ceremony after lunch.

Model UN is an international educational organization that promotes global citizenship by offering programs for students to develop and sharpen skills in negotiation, diplomacy and public speaking. Last year’s event was canceled due to the pandemic, but in 2019, the participation had risen to 120 students, the highest ever, so district-wide interest continues to build.

Culbreth Middle School (CMS) student, Yadira Lopez Secena, said, "Model UN was a great experience. It teaches you about world conflicts that many of us didn't know what was happening. And helps you with public speaking.”

Chen said, “This year, despite many obstacles to a virtual conference, I think the conference went smoothly and imitated a typical conference. Benjamin really made the technology aspect of things work: he set up complex systems within Google Drive and Meet for delegates to communicate with others, and while complicated, delegates adapted to them quickly and easily. It obviously wasn't as fun as missing a day of school and meeting dozens of new peers in-person, but I think it was still a branch out from the typical school day with the same teachers and classmates. Hopefully, the delegates will be able to experience a typical Model UN conference soon.”

After listening to welcoming remarks from the secretaries-general, students viewed a TED-Ed talk, "What Does it Mean to Be a Refugee?” that begins with a segment noting the 60 million people worldwide who have been forced to flee their homes, and clarifying the difference between refugees and migrants. The talk drives home the many extreme hardships refugees face at every stage in their pursuit of new lives.

MUN TED-ED imageChen said, “We decided on the Tigray War and its related refugee crisis as our topic of the conference this year for several reasons. We wanted to incorporate some aspect of COVID-19 affecting the world, as it clearly casts a huge shadow on this year. We tied it to how refugees are affected by the pandemic and how the spread can worsen conditions and reduce aid. The conflict is a very complex issue between ethnic groups' sovereignty and a government's authority, and we thought it would help delegates to understand such power dynamics. Last, it isn't covered much in most news sources but has affected hundreds of thousands of people in the region of East Africa. Also, it is an ongoing issue, that started in November of last year and is still in flux. We thought this would challenge the delegates to research information that isn't readily available and keep up with complex and constantly changing events.”

The first committee session began with Knight calling each delegation by country; those countries included major powers like China, U.S.A and Russia, as well as much smaller countries, Estonia, Niger, St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

“The middle school conference normally has a palpable energy in the committee rooms and halls as delegates pass notes back and forth and staffers rush between committee rooms,” Knight said. “I was worried we wouldn't be able to capture this virtually, but I was pleasantly surprised the delegates still brought that energy with them. As we were waiting to start the closing ceremony, delegates spontaneously began debating the merits of the veto power in the United Nations Security Council. This reminded me of the in-person conferences where I have often gone to the closing ceremony continuing debate from a committee. I hope the delegates will take this excitement and interest back to their classrooms where they can use examples from global history and world affairs to understand literature, modern domestic politics, and their own lives. While our virtual conference lacked much of the style of the in-person conference, I believe it kept most of the substance.”

“The middle school conference has always had a special place in my heart," Chen said. "It was so fun to miss a day of school every April, dress up, and meet other middle school students from around the district. Since then, I've continued to do Model UN in high school, and I'm now the vice president of my school club. The middle school conferences I attended really became the foundations for a passion for politics, global issues, and debate for me. It was amazing working with Benjamin to try to develop an experience as foundational as that for the current middle schoolers, to try to foment that kind of engagement with world events and diplomacy, as well as skills like public speaking and investigative research.”

Knight said, “It was great to work with Caroline, the fifteen high school staffers, Dr. Christy Stanley, and the advisors at each of the middle schools, all of whom are integral to creating a positive experience for the delegates.”

Social Studies Teacher Emily Shepherd, said, “This was my first year serving as a sponsor for Model UN at Culbreth. The students were eager and enthusiastic, and put a lot of time and effort into preparing for this year's conference. I was impressed by their thoughtfulness and willingness to engage, even though it was all done virtually. For most of the students it was their first time participating since last year's conference was canceled, but that did not stop them from fully engaging with the meetings and the conference! The high school students did a wonderful job facilitating and they made the students feel comfortable to take risks and engage fully in the conference.”

CMS student, Aiden Huckabee, said, “It was a great experience. You get to work with great people, teachers, and students alike. I think every student should partake in Model UN sometime in their education. You study real-world problems. And you are never alone, your partners are there as well as teachers.”

“I continue to be involved in Model UN because I find it is a format for compelling debate and effective compromise that forces us each to embody others' perspectives,” Knight said. “I also appreciate that almost everything in Model UN at the high school and college levels is run by students. It's really rewarding to be able to get to know student leaders in other clubs and at other conferences and to know that I can give back and help others have a similar experience to my own. The student leadership in Model UN is also pedagogically valuable because chairing committees, organizing conferences, and running club trainings all teach different skills that help us in Model UN, in our school work, and in other aspects of our lives.”

Phillips Middle School Gifted Education Specialist, Billy Giblin, said, “Students looked for something different and challenging with the continued remote and hybrid learning, and the Model UN Conference filled that void. For many students, Model UN is a highlight, and this year was no exception. I am grateful for our district leadership and our high school students and middle school advisors.”