Online Model UN changes experience, increases access

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By SHELDON KRAUSE
Capital News Service

LANSING — As the pandemic continues to keep many events virtual, high school and college Model United Nations conferences are adapting to the new format with mostly positive reactions from students and organizers.

Model UN is an extracurricular activity in which high schoolers simulate the UN General Assembly responding to historic or hypothetical crises. 

General assembly committees tackle real-world geopolitical issues, like an international arms standoff, while crisis committees take historical or fantastical scenarios to improve problem-solving and debate skills without modern complications.

Most college-level Model UN organizations center around planning annual conferences for middle or high school students, rather than participating in conferences as delegates.

Central Michigan University’s Model UN Association is hosting its virtual CHIPMUN conference for high school students over the weekend of April 9. 

The crises discussed will be a historically focused crisis set in 1745 Scotland and two creative crises — one about Jurassic Park and the other a Dungeons and Dragons-based Scooby Doo-themed investigation.

CHIPMUN’s secretary general, Lauren Hicks, said the conference has changed in the digital format.

“Many Model UN programs are not even doing anything anymore,” she said. “With some people not being in in-person schooling, it’s a lot harder to have clubs and organizations and especially with social distancing.

 And it’s just harder resources-wise, financially, to be asking people to spend money on conferences and for schools to spend money on it,” she said.

She said fewer students are participating but participants are more diverse than in the past.

“We’ve been able, because of the virtual conference, to have students from all over the country. We had students from outside of the US come to our last conference,” she said.

CHIPMUN had a traditional general assembly conference in the fall, which attracted 49 high school delegates, in contrast to the 96 delegates who attended the previous fall.  For the spring conference, Hicks said the organizations expect 41 delegates, while 132 delegates attended in person in the spring of 2019.

Jillian Riney, the former secretary general of MSUMUN, Michigan State University’s Model UN, presided over its virtual conference March 26-28. 

The conference mixed general assembly and crisis topics, ranging from gene editing to the Holy Roman Empire to the world of Pokémon. 

Riney said she feels that the conference was more enjoyable and effective online than in person.

“It really sped things up because at normal conferences there’s a lot of hand-writing notes and physically waiting for them to get passed down the room.” At the virtual conference, however,  “you just type a Slack message to whoever you want to send a note to and it’s done,” she said.

The virtual conference lasted the traditional three days but with fewer hours of debate to avoid Zoom fatigue.  

“We didn’t get any complaints, so I think that was a good way to do it,” she said.

Riney, like Hicks, said there was a change in accessibility with the online format.

“We had three or four schools that either were not in Michigan or not in the U.S. who were able to attend, which is awesome because traditionally, we do get a couple high schools that will drive up from Ohio, but we had a school from Wyoming, from India,” she said.

However, Riney also said the format may have proven less accessible for some Michigan high schools. Despite a focus in recent years to include schools in the Lansing area, Riney said that a lack of consistent internet access made it more difficult for some schools to participate virtually.  

MSUMUN planned to have nearly 900 attendants in-person last year, and this year had around 250 virtual attendees.

Sara Sabbagh, an Advanced Placement literature teacher and MUN advisor at Dearborn High School, said the online format made the conference more accessible for her school.

“It’s just a different dynamic,” Sabbagh said. “The fact that it’s online made it more accessible too because we don’t have a lot of money to afford the hotel, and then the driving. So being able to do it online and only have to pay for the cost of the conference made it a lot more accessible for my students.”

Sabbagh said only two students, both seniors, participated in the school’s Model UN program, a drop from the usual 6-7.

“I was happy that Michigan State was offering the conference because I still wanted them to be able to participate, but it’s unfortunate that as seniors, they couldn’t experience MSUMUN in-person,” Sabbagh said.

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