Student leaders tackle global problems at Model United Nations

by Joe Selmont  |   

The UAA Wendy Williamson is empty in the hours leading up to the Model United Nations in 2018.
The UAA Wendy Williamson is empty in the hours leading up to the Model United Nations in 2018. The conference was held virtually this year. (Photo by James Evans / UAA)

For 39 years, Model United Nations has afforded Alaska’s high school and college students a playground of arcane rules and procedures to cultivate their understanding of global politics and develop their leadership competencies.

Like most everything else in the past year, the 2021 Model United Nations — or MUN, as participants and organizers refer to it — adjusted to COVID-19 by meeting virtually. But MUN  leaned into the experience, going so far as to designate this year’s theme as PANDEMIC!, all-caps and exclamation point included.  

“It’s extraordinary to think that the last big event we did before the pandemic hit home and began affecting our everyday lives was last year’s MUN,” said Kimberly Pace, who is a political science professor at UAA and for the past 18 years has served as director of Model United Nations of Alaska. “We actually announced a different theme at last year’s MUN, but the pandemic is such an obviously rich and difficult topic to address from a world governance perspective, plus every participant has an intimate knowledge of life during COVID-19, so it just made sense for us to focus on the effects of and response to this global issue.”

Over the course of Friday and Saturday, Feb. 26 and 27, the participants of MUN attacked the pandemic from many perspectives. Participants adopted the roles of different nations and Indigenous groups from around the globe, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), and United Nations committees like the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII). And the participants prepared for weeks or months leading up to MUN, learning not only what all these acronyms stand for, but what these governing bodies actually do and how they do it.  

Pace said, “Part of what makes MUN such a powerful learning tool is it allows students to step outside of themselves and look at issues from a different perspective on a global scale. Students step into someone else’s shoes and then they do their best to solve global problems — whether social justice issues, climate change, political violence, the pandemic or fill-in-the-blank.”

The Model UN's Secretariat meets over Zoom. The Secretariat represents the conference's leadership and is composed primarily of UAA students.
The Model United Nations' Secretariat meets over Zoom. The Secretariat represents the conference's leadership and is composed primarily of UAA students. Their blue blazers are a lasting tradition, even during virtual proceedings. (Photo courtesy of Kathleen Behnke / UAA)

Pace believes that MUN leads participants to gain a greater sense of humanity, empathy and connectedness, in addition to improving their skills related to communication, research, decision making and teamwork. Importantly, MUN also empowers participants with the opportunity to embrace a leadership role and envision themselves as real-world powerbrokers, while simultaneously emphasizing the necessity and ethical value of democratic processes and stakeholder buy-in. Even the most powerful nations must work together to solve global problems, after all.

“It’s just amazing to see what creative solutions our students come up with,” said Pace. “If these people are part of the decision-making process in the future, then thank goodness!”

Developing leaders

Marya Halvorsen and Abbie Lampman are two of those people. Both are UAA students who have been involved with MUN for years.

Halvorsen is a senior in political science who grew up in Kodiak and first participated in MUN as a delegate three years ago. This year, she led the PFII, the United Nations’ central coordinating body for matters related to the rights and welfare of the world’s Indigenous peoples.

“In reality, I’m a shy introvert,” said Halvorsen. “I never wanted to do any public speaking whatsoever, but by the end of my first year in MUN I realized that I was terrified for no reason. I realized that a lot of leaders are reluctant leaders. They step up when called upon, but they aren’t necessarily seeking those roles. They don’t necessarily want the spotlight.”

As the chair of the PFII, Halvorsen sought to create an effective and safe space for debate. She noted that the PFII tackled many hard issues this year, particularly since Indigenous peoples around the world have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, both in terms of health and economic outcomes.

Halvorsen added, “Participating in MUN has definitely made me a more diplomatic participant in persuasive conversations, even when talking through tinderbox issues. I learned early on that some of the best leaders aren’t the loudest people in the room. They’re the people who can give weight to what they’re saying, the people who can rally others to their cause.”

Abbie Lampman and Marya Halvorsen hold the flag of the United Nations.
Abbie Lampman (left) and Marya Halvorsen (right) hold the flag of the United Nations in front of the spine between the Wells Fargo Sports Complex and Rasmusson Hall. (Photo by Kathleen Behnke / UAA)

Lampman, who is a senior with a double major in marketing and French, made similar observations about the nature of leadership. She served as the director and chief justice of the ICC for the third year in a row, and she has participated in MUN since her senior year of high school.

“To be honest, I had that feeling of imposter syndrome when I first accepted a leadership role,” said Lampman. “But at some point it clicked that I deserve to be here, that I’m just as capable as anyone else. It’s OK to ask questions and learn, even while others are learning from you. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

The ICC hears cases between nations that have lived through complicated and tragic circumstances; the charges are all related to crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide or crimes of aggression. Participants play either the prosecution or the defense to represent their nation’s interests. The trial’s format results in fast-paced, back-and-forth questioning that forces the participants to think quickly.

“One aspect I’ve appreciated about my experience with ICC is that it provided me with my first leadership role,” said Lampman. “I’ve always felt like I was a quiet leader, so to speak. And my time with MUN has really given me the confidence to move into leadership roles and not feel intimidated. This experience has really meant a lot to me. It’s not something I’ll ever forget.”

Nearly 40 years of new leaders

Halvorsen and Lampman are both set to graduate in May, but Pace is hopeful the two MUN veterans will volunteer at next year’s event to help mentor the new crop of participants. 2022 will also mark MUN’s 40th anniversary, a hallmark that leaves Pace feeling proud about the program’s lasting impact on Alaska.

“I’ve spent 18 years as director of MUN. That’s a long time,” Pace said. “I think of all the students who have wrestled with leadership roles over the years — students who accepted the responsibility of leadership even though they didn’t believe they were ready, students who ultimately came into their own and did an incredible job. When I think of those students, then I know what a far-reaching impact this program has had.”

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