Model students

By Neela Pal (English, Foreign Affairs ’06)
Tian and Anderson.

Tian and Anderson.
Photo by Jack Mellott.

When Scott Anderson first encountered VAMUN — code name for Virginia Model United Nations — seven years ago, he was a shy high-school student who hated school and hated public speaking. He only made it to the VAMUN conference, he recalls, through the sheer persuasive powers of one history teacher.

Now Anderson (Politics ’06) heads U.Va.’s student-run International Relations Organization (IRO), which celebrates its 25th anniversary of hosting the VAMUN conference this fall.

“I would say Model U.N.’s the one reason I got into U.Va, and why I’ve been able to do well here,” he states simply. “The nerdy perceptions aside, you’re taking kids from diverse backgrounds, differing levels of confidence and speaking, writing and debate abilities, and you’re getting them to come together and discuss issues that are of genuine importance to a lot of people in the world.”

The 650 high-school students attending this year’s conference Oct. 27 through 30 hail not only from Virginia, but also states as far away as Minnesota and South Carolina. They arrive in delegations ranging in size from six to 50.

“High-school Model U.N. is kind of a cult-like activity; people get pretty fanatical about it,” says Anderson, himself a veteran high-school delegate.

Shujun Tian (History, Foreign Affairs ’06), IRO’s secretary general and head conference coordinator, remembers the distinct culture of high-school Model U.N. As students at Fairfax County, Va.’s, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — a hotbed for Model U.N. activity — Tian and Anderson attended multiple VAMUN conferences at U.Va. Tian now turns to memories of her high school VAMUN career as she manages a six-member secretariat, or planning committee, for this event.

“I’m in a good position because I’d done it in high school, so I can see it from their perspective,” says Tian, who admits to sometimes missing her days as a participant. “Mainly when I’m planning I think of what kind of conference I would have liked as a delegate.”

And for Tian, this criterion sets the mark high.

“Model U.N. is a competition. It’s also,” she says, “an incredible learning experience because you get to come here and debate things that most ordinary high schools don’t talk about.”

Landmines in Southeast Asia; cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space; biotechnology and health; erosion of ecosystems and its effects on human health: These are among the issues facing this year’s round of delegates. All are topics brainstormed by U.Va. students, many of them IRO members, who staff 18 VAMUN committees.

“They’ve all signed up for committees in their realm of expertise, so it’s also an opportunity for us to talk about what we know best,” Tian explains. “We try to come up with really creative topics in committee for the kids so that they get to learn something they normally wouldn’t have learned.”

While the conference attendees come in as high schoolers, they quickly morph into international political leaders.

“Each delegate comes here and they adopt a role on a given committee. Each committee simulates an international body of some sort — governmental or nongovernmental,” Anderson states.

Provisional politicians are prepped with material to debate for Friday and Saturday, but they also face announcements of surprise crises, designed to drive the real-life simulation home for them.

“Smaller crisis committees debate issues given to them in the middle of a session that they have to respond to quickly,” Anderson explains, citing the U.S. National Security Council responding to a terrorist attack as an example. “Sometimes they even have to handle two or three crises at once, depending on how vindictive the chair is. [The goal is] to see who can handle stress and more complicated subjects and the balancing of different factors and priorities.”

While the high schoolers are immersed in the role of political dignitaries for the weekend, they are not completely unaware of the beautiful college campus where they are strategizing.

“They get to kind of run the Grounds themselves over the weekend,” says Anderson. “You look around and 99 percent of what you see are high schoolers in suits carrying around placards.”

VAMUN planners strive to make the most of the weekend, which for many of the high schoolers is their first informal college visit. Only University facilities are used for conference events (sometimes entire buildings at a time), and many of the conference attendees lodge in nearby hotels, which are also completely taken over.

“This is the only time they have high levels of interaction with college students,” Anderson says. “It is convenient for kids who have been dreaming of coming to U.Va.”