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What is Model UN? (And Why Should You Care?)

23 August 2012
Student delegates listening (Hendrik Wohlfahrt)

All ears: Model UN delegates listen and take notes at a conference in Stuttgart, Germany.

This article is part of the eJournal USA issue “Global Generation: The Model UN Experience.”

By Nili Sarit Yossinger

Every year, hundreds of thousands of young people all over the world participate in Model United Nations (Model UN) conferences.

But what is it?

In Model UN, students pretend they are delegates from various countries serving on UN committees. Participants research issues and formulate negotiating positions based on the real interests of the countries they represent. Depending on the committee they are assigned to, delegates might develop global environmental policies or advise the UN Security Council on economic sanctions.

There are approximately 400 Model UN conferences worldwide and students can participate as early as middle school or as late as graduate school. To prepare for a conference, students thoroughly research the topics assigned to their committee, as well as the geography, culture, politics and history of the country they are representing. They then develop positions on each issue, taking into consideration the particular needs and goals of their country.

So what is it like?

I was just beginning college when I first heard about Model UN. One of my professors was taking a group of students to the 2004 National Model UN Conference in New York and asked me to join. He hoped to convince me the experience would not only benefit me academically but would alter my professional pursuits beyond college.

I thought, “Why not?”

I signed up and agreed to be an "ambassador" representing Benin. Though I had spent time outside of the United States, I had no experience with international politics and knew very little about the United Nations (UN).

After months of research, I arrived at the conference with no idea what to expect from my fellow diplomats. I entered the General Assembly room and looked around at the 300-plus professionally dressed students, and suddenly I felt nervous. Would I be able to represent Benin adequately? Would I be able to speak in front of all of these people?

Yet, when the president called the room to order, we were all transformed. It really felt like we had become ambassadors from every continent, ready to resolve international conflict.

As we talked about the impact of terrorism on human rights or the humanitarian concerns in war-torn countries, I recognized the greatest challenge to resolving conflict. It was not a lack of time, money or energy. It was the difficulty of learning to negotiate and compromise with people from every background, culture, religion and perspective. Model UN not only helps us to face that challenge, but to overcome it.

The bottom line is there is no better way to understand how the world works than to try walking in the shoes of other countries. From the moment you set foot in a Model UN conference, you are the diplomat and you must represent your country’s interests in the global community.

What do you get out of it?

My Model UN experience was transformative. By the end of the week, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the world. I pursued my classes with a new passion. I learned everything I could about international children’s issues, peace building, and the functions of different international organizations. I participated in two more Model UN conferences, representing Egypt and then Albania, before joining the staff of American Model United Nations International in Chicago. Now I have the pleasure of training the next generation of Model UN all-stars and international leaders.

Model UN is the perfect opportunity to get involved, get passionate, and understand the world around you. The skills you will gain in conflict resolution, public speaking, diplomacy and writing — and the friendships you will build — will last you a lifetime. No matter what path you choose in high school, college and beyond, Model UN can help you get there!

Nili Sarit Yossinger most recently worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Washington. She currently serves as president of the General Assembly on the Executive Committee of American Model United Nations International in Chicago, Illinois.

Student in suits smiling (Courtesy photo)

Game face: Nili Yossinger and fellow American Model United Nations (AMUN) staff get ready for the opening plenary session.