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Acting for Change

23 August 2012
Ryan Kaminski sitting behind U.S. placard (Courtesy photo)

Look the part: Ryan Kaminski poses behind the United States’ placard in the General Assembly Hall of UN Headquarters in New York.

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

By Ryan Kaminski

A friend of mine who was trying to understand Model United Nations (Model UN) once asked me: “It’s basically just like acting, right?”

The simple answer is “Yes.” In Model UN, young people “act” like high-level diplomats representing the United Nations’ 193 member states.

But Model UN is so much more.

My Model UN Experience

Arriving at my first Model UN conference in secondary school, I was nervous. Actually, I was really nervous. But when the registration desk handed me my country’s placard, something changed. Suddenly, I felt like I was in the driver’s seat, and that I had just been instantly promoted to the rank of ambassador.

Over the course of the conference, I evolved from wary observer to highly engaged stakeholder. I learned to identify potential friends and allies, compromise with opponents, and craft passable draft resolutions in collaboration with fellow delegates. I made new friends and learned about schools, cities and countries very different from my own.

As my stage fright evaporated, I realized that I was part a part of something much bigger than myself. My fellow Model UN delegates and I formed a community with a shared commitment to international cooperation, diplomacy, mutual respect and compromise.

Energized by many subsequent conferences, I continued my Model UN career in college. Rather than participating only as a delegate, I also helped organize and even run a few conferences.

When tasked with running a simulation of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), I was able to explore the mechanics of the UN’s premier human rights organ. Along with sheer excitement, the position also came with new responsibilities. In particular, I was required to mentor four other committee staff members, as well as research and write clear background briefs on each of the topics the committee would consider. It was hard work, but it paid off when I got to watch the committee spring to life during my school’s annual Model UN conference.

Later, I had the chance to moderate a simulation of the entire UN General Assembly (UNGA) of almost 400 students at UN headquarters (the real one!) in New York. To succeed, I had to be organized, efficient and fair — ensuring that all delegations present, from Japan to Togo, were given an equal voice in the committee’s deliberations.

While the task was admittedly challenging, it taught me how to carry out complex projects, work constructively with other conference staff, and meet critical deadlines. After all, Model UN delegates usually have only a day or two to tackle major global problems!

Making the Transition

Serving as a Model UN delegate and conference organizer provided a practical and exciting channel for me to learn more about international affairs. I researched and wrote about topics ranging from climate change and nuclear nonproliferation to women’s rights and the spread of HIV/AIDS. Representing a diverse array of countries such as the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Republic of the Congo, Spain and the United States was invaluable in helping me understand how different countries and cultures approach these issues.

As a student, my coursework definitely benefited since many of my school assignments concerned topics I had already debated in-depth during Model UN conferences. Similarly, when applying for internships and jobs, interviewers have been impressed with the fact that I have participated in and facilitated simulated sessions of major international institutions such as the UNHRC and UNGA.

After graduating from university, Model UN even helped me to land my first job abroad. When I started working as a Fulbright English teacher in Hong Kong, I learned that my assigned school chose me because they valued my knowledge of Model UN, and my experience engaging a wide diversity of people and cultural perspectives.

Since my year in Hong Kong, I have been fortunate to pursue many new international opportunities — including one role where I attended real-life UN committee sessions with a real UN ambassador. In each instance, the skills and confidence I gained through my Model UN experience have helped me to be successful.

Acting on the World Stage

William Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” While the young men and women of Model UN may be pretending, they are also learning to “act” effectively on the world stage. By increasing their knowledge of international affairs, expanding their worldview and developing vital leadership skills, Model UN delegates are preparing to make a very real impact in the world.

Take it from me: Model UN can boost self-confidence, improve understanding of major international issues and, most importantly, develop capacity for leadership. If more young people participate in Model UN, the world will likely see not only more great leaders, but ultimately more happy endings.

Ryan Kaminski, 26, is currently the Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow with the United Nations Association (UNA). Previously he worked as a research associate with the Council on Foreign Relations' International Institutions and Global Governance program. He was awarded the Jal Pavry Award for research in international peace and understanding from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs in 2009 and the Leo Nevas Young Advocate for Human Rights Award in 2011. Kaminski was a Fulbright Fellow in Hong Kong from 2008 to 2009 and also worked with Papua New Guinea's Mission to the UN from 2009 to 2011. He obtained his bachelor of arts degree from the University of Chicago and master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University.

Ryan Kaminski watching Ban Ki-moon (Milan Stanic)

A bright start: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon waves to Model UN participants at the 2009 UNA-USA Global Classrooms Model UN Conference.