By Rachel Cromidas
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

It’s a great chance for everyone to improve their public speaking skills and research different global issues”
—Ji Won Kim
College third-year

It is 11:06 on Saturday morning as Vinayak Ishwar receives news of the assassination of a Pakistani political leader. Hoping to act quickly, the Attorney General of the United States National Security Council wants Ishwar to tell him how the U.S. military should respond.

“Direct military action will have severe repercussions,” Ishwar says to the tense assembly of government officials gathered in a meeting room at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago.

“We need to get the UN and NATO involved … we cannot do this unilaterally,” one of the council members suggests after minutes of deliberation.

It looks like another day of addressing multinational crises for the National Security Council—except Ishwar is a fourth-year at the University of Chicago, and his advising body is composed of high school students attending the Model United Nations of the University of Chicago conference.

The University has a vibrant cohort of Model UN enthusiasts on campus, many of whom travel around the nation competing in sessions mimicking the deliberations of real multi-national governing bodies. Some of those who don’t compete belong to MUNUC, a Registered Student Organization tasked with planning and hosting one of the largest high school Model UN conferences in the world. Those involved in planning the event have been working since February 2008 to register high school teams for the conference, coordinate hotel rooms, and devise a series of international conflicts for teams to respond during their stay.

One such student is Ishwar; he and hundreds more University students convened with 2,400 high school student-delegates from around the world for the 21st annual MUNUC Conference from Feb. 5-8 at the Palmer House Hilton. Students from New York, California, and even China and Jordan assembled into 22 committees simulating the United Nations and other governing bodies, such as the U.S. National Security Council, to spend the weekend debating policy issues.

“I’ve always been involved in the competitive circuit,” says Ishwar, who is also president of ChoMUN, the University’s competitive Model UN team, but this is his first year participating in the MUNUC conference. “I like the educational component of this—when you have a lot of high school students who are so excited [about international policy] it’s definitely rewarding,” Ishwar said.

‘State of Continuous Crisis’

If that means waking up the students at 1:30 a.m. to respond to a “crisis,” then all the better, Ishwar says. The National Security Council was in “a state of continuous crisis,” he explains, and had to respond to a stream of surprise news updates throughout the weekend without any time to prepare.

“Yesterday the Golden Gate Bridge blew up, and there was a terrorist attack on the Statue of Liberty,” says Stephanie Siu, Secretary-General of the conference, with an enthusiasm that comes from years of devising issues for competitors to debate. “We are throwing them new stuff all the time.”

As Secretary-General, Siu is charged with overseeing the conference, building a team of student event planners through MUNUC’s registered student organization, and coordinating registration for 125 high schools that competed in the four-day conference.

“I’ve basically been working on this since February 2008,” says Siu, a College fourth-year.

According to Siu, MUNUC members bring plenty of passion and experience to the game. But planning the conference “isn’t just about loving Model UN. We have students here who are interested in working with kids, education, event planning. The best part is you don’t get just one type of person.”

To Ji Won Kim, College third-year and Chief Communications Officer, the conference is an opportunity for both college and high school students to learn something new.

“It’s a great chance for everyone to improve their public speaking skills and research different global issues,” Kim says.

Confidence Boost for High Schoolers

Kim helps MUNUC coordinate presentations for high school students with members of 14 consulates in Chicago, and arranged other fun activities in the city, like a tour of the Sears Tower Skydeck.

Senior James Cunningham of St. Johns High School in Massachusetts looks forward to exploring the city. Cunningham, who is attending his third MUNUC conference, said he was inspired by the confidence MUNUC instills in its participants.

His advisor, history teacher Charles Abdella, agrees. “I’ve been doing this for 12 years, attended a bunch [of conferences]. And I certainly think the level of dedication is always here in Chicago. I mean, you’re missing three days of school—and I’m a teacher—so I know this must be important.”

And as for the day’s earlier crisis, the “Obama administration” still hasn’t taken action against the perpetrators of the coast-to-coast terrorist attacks, or resolved Pakistan’s political unrest, MUNUC officials report.

But don’t expect the teenage administration to miss out on another year of foreign policy challenges.

Originally published on March 2, 2009.