By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications
International Institute, July 12, 2013 — For seven days this summer, high school students from around the world converged on UCLA to become diplomats at an academic simulation of the United Nations. At the weeklong UCLA Model United Nations (MUN) Summer Institute sponsored by the International Institute, the students lived in a virtual United Nations world, negotiating responses to a simulated world crisis or resolutions on serious global issues as members of mock UN standing committees.
Held across the UCLA campus from June 23 to June 29 (with an off-campus excursion to Santa Monica), the UCLA MUN Summer Institute welcomed 93 “delegates” this year— a big jump from the 58 who participated in the inaugural Summer Institute in 2012. While the majority came from California, a number came from across the United States and a few, from other countries (including Australia, Indonesia, Japan, China, Poland and the United Arab Emirates).
Unlike typical MUN Conferences where teams of students from various schools compete against each other, the UCLA Model UN Summer Institute is primarily designed for individual students from across the United States and abroad to come together and hone their Model UN abilities.
The issue debated in one committee session observed by this writer —how to respond to the humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees outside of Syria and civilian displaced persons within Syria — sounded just like the news.
And that’s the point: Model UN sessions typically present fictional situations based on real-life events, then challenge delegates to represent a specific country’s interests in the ensuing debate. Topics debated by other committees in the Summer Institute included human rights in Myanmar, the self-determination of Kosovo and Taiwan, wild animal trafficking and the Mexican drug war.
Veteran UCLA undergraduates lead the Institute
The UCLA Model UN Summer Institute is formally overseen by Associate Professor of Political Science Michael Thies, Chair of the Global Studies and International & Area Studies degree programs of the International Institute (part of its Interdepartmental Programs).
But it is UCLA undergraduate students — all of them veterans of Model UN competitions, often dating back to their own high school years — who run the day-to-day operations of the Institute. Their operation is impressive.
MUN Institute Program Coordinator Kyle Khandikian (UCLA 2014).
Led by Program Coordinator Kyle Khandikian (UCLA 2014, communications studies and Asian Humanities), the team of UCLA “MUN-ers” are all members of Model United Nations at UCLA, an on-campus student organization. The majority study political science, global studies or international development studies (another degree program of the International Institute), but the club draws students from a wide variety of majors.
Summer Institute staff bring high school participants up to speed on international relations theory and current international events; teach them the official rules of procedure of MUN and the basics of public speaking; moderate mock sessions of the Security Council, the UN Economic and Social Council and the UN Fourth Committee of the General Assembly; and invent “just-breaking” events that interrupt students’ ongoing deliberations — just like in the real world.
“MUN at UCLA is one of the largest and oldest student-run organizations on campus, active since 1950,” says Khandikian. Since joining the organization as a freshman, Khandikian has competed regularly with the UCLA team at collegiate conferences around the country.
In addition, he has helped organize BruinMUN (the club’s official high school conference, held at UCLA) and LAMUN (the club’s official collegiate-level conference held off campus), and served as the club’s Director of Travel Team and Head Delegate in 2012–2013. How he finds time to study, much less for a double major, is a mystery!
“Model UN has given me the opportunity to learn, travel and explore my interests — it has even introduced me to some of my closest friends,” remarks Khandikian.
MUN Institute staff member and UCLA graduate Vinay Mysoor (2013) briefs delegates on a breaking news event. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)
Broadening students’ perspectives beyond the United States
Some of the high school students who participated in the UCLA Model UN Summer Institute were confirmed political junkies before they arrived. As Rachel Prokupek remarks, “I really like coming here because it seems everyone is just as interested and passionate about this as I am.”
Other delegates come seeking a deeper understanding of world affairs. "The reason I wanted to come to this Institute, “says David Gulko, “is because I never really knew exactly what was happening abroad — I only knew what was happening in the United States. It was really nice to study how other countries think and what actions can be taken within the UN.”
Hannah Nasseri concurs, “I feel like I've learned to see the world from a different perspective and have a better understanding of what's going on around me. I feel that since we live in the U.S., we have a biased opinion.” Jacqueline Monetta thinks along similar lines: “At school, we usually just focus on world history or U.S. history —this [experience] gave me an opportunity to discuss what is happening right now.”
Almost all the students say the challenge of representing the interests of another country has changed their perspective on world politics. Benjamin White observes, "Having to learn China's perspective and the reason that it sometimes does not cooperate with the West, or has its own agenda, was very interesting. I have a lot more respect for the nation of China.”
Negotiating in order to achieve compromise solutions also impacts the way in which the students look at international relations. Notes Joanna Hua, "What is really great about a Model UN is that you not only get to see what each country looks at and how they view things, [you] also see how a country compromises.” Her peer David Kuperman adds, "What I've learned from this Institute is how to compromise while still keeping the interests of a certain country or a certain position.”
MUN Institute delegates confer during an informal negotiating round. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)
The lessons being learned go beyond politics. Olivia Hedding offers, “I feel that we learn things that you can use in your day-to-day life, such as how to speak in front of people. I feel like that is something that I can really take away from this [Institute] — not only in my everyday life, but also when I grow up and have a professional job.”
Clearly, the 2013 UCLA Model UN is awakening high school students’ serious interest in — and knowledge of — international affairs, as well as imparting skills in public speaking, negotiation and compromise. The product of dedicated UCLA students, it is a fitting contribution to the mission of the UCLA International Institute: to cultivate culturally literate global citizens.