High school students from all over Utah gathered in the Wilkinson Student Center at BYU to attend the 33rd annual high school Model United Nations (MUN) Conference. Students hummed with a mix of excitement and anticipation for what awaited them. Over six hundred students were in attendance—the biggest turnout since the COVID-19 pandemic—several of whom were first-time participants.
This year’s keynote speaker, Barbara Melendez, serves as the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Belonging at BYU Law School, and is recognized nationally as one of the top immigration lawyers. She expressed her excitement for the students’ generation and applauded their dedication to participating in an extracurricular activity on what was a school holiday for many.
Introducing herself further, Melendez shared symbols that she held near and dear to her heart: oranges, a cargo ship, and an open door. When she was six, her parents escaped Cuba. In a desperate attempt to help his family escape, Melendez’s father had his family hide in a cargo ship full of oranges headed to Canada, tucked away in the captain’s quarters. Melendez’s mother paid the captain to conceal their presence. Eventually, they entered the United States through Niagara Falls, rented a room in an apartment in the Bronx, and were reunited with their father fourteen years later.
Oranges represented the opportunity to leave communism, or to have opportunities. The cargo ship represented the way one prepares themself to face challenges by gaining knowledge, learning diplomacy, and learning about other people’s cultures and countries. “You can be the vessel that changes not only your lives, but your community, and, someday, the world,” Melendez said. Lastly, the open door represents being led to a new world, place, or challenge, and encourages students to follow through and persevere. Surveying the room full of students who were soon-to-be delegates of various nations, Melendez reminded everyone, “Here at this conference, you represent the world.”
From there, the ballroom and other rooms were quickly sectioned off into the main bodies of the UN such as the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the World Health Organization. A unique addition to this year’s conference was the Organization of American States; the group’s presence provided a unique challenge because negotiation, policy making, and written proposals were conducted entirely in Spanish.
From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., high school and BYU students helped run the various rooms and participated in several sessions, followed by short caucus meetings that allowed students representing certain countries to connect and form alliances with other countries. Teachers prepared their students to accurately represent their countries by researching political and cultural histories, staying up to date on current social issues, and practicing empathy to understand a country that may not hold the same values that the student had grown up with. One teacher shared that she had a young man in her class who was often harsh and argumentative. She purposefully asked for countries that had the least in common with the United States, and, as the young man learned more about the gender violence and lack of women’s rights in the country he was representing, his empathy and compassion for others grew. The teacher said the student cried when he saw what that part of the world was dealing with.
Sam Martineau, a teacher from Wasatch Independent Debate who has had over six years of experience working with high schoolers to prepare them for Model UN, explained the benefits of having young people participate. He said that in many critical thinking events, students often compete against opponents to win. But in the case of MUN, students learn more interdependence and cooperation because the objectives of changing the world can only be achieved when working well together. “It's a great skill set—to see them learn how to work with another person to create something and how that give and take really ends up creating something worthwhile with other people. So not only are they coming with their partner, but then they'll seek out other partners. That collegial attitude, and the skill set that leverages a collegial attitude, is the biggest growing point.”
Within the General Assembly, various Member States raised their placards in the air, motioning to set the agenda towards a 2:1 vote discussing gender-based violence before press freedom. In the Economic and Social Council, the delegates debated building resilience, and addressed rising food insecurity and limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to help reduce the worst impacts of climate change. During the World Health Organization committee session, delegates voted towards a 2:1 vote, discussing access to adequate health care, highlighting the Malaria resurgence and ensuring access to adequate healthcare.
The Organization of American States—or the Spanish Committee which housed eight delegates total—discussed the violence and unrest caused by narcotics trafficking. Students representing Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, and Mexico collaborated on ideas for overcoming the effects of gang violence on education rates in the Americas.
A student from West High School representing Morocco said, “The thing that I wasn’t expecting is that many people have specific ideas and knowledge about different topics that are super nuanced.” A student from Timpanogos High School representing Ghana enjoyed being with their friends but also contributing to the meetings. “I wasn’t expecting such politically relevant themes this year.”
Another student from Highland High School shared how representing North Korea helped her to learn how to be respectful with people she disagreed with. “It’s challenging to represent North Korea because of the lack of information and ability to verify stats, reports, and so on. It's not like I was expecting any hostility, but at the same time there is tension. It’s an interesting challenge to represent a country whose values I don’t always agree with.”
After a long day of forming alliances, affirming motions, and writing resolutions, delegates voted to adopt many of the various resolutions in their respective committees and returned to the ballroom for closing ceremonies and awards. Students are evaluated based on public speaking, parliamentary procedure, policy writing, research, and diplomacy skills—such as leadership, negotiation, collaboration, listening, and coalition building. Awards were given to several Outstanding Delegations: Federative Republic of Brazil, Gabonese Republic, Norway, Republic of Costa Rica, Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Distinguished Faculty Award went to Kyle Bracken for going above and beyond to help his students prepare and succeed in the conference.
Executive Director Marie Kulbeth said this was one of “the best high school Model UN” conferences the Kennedy Center has ever done. Cory Leonard said, “It was a great year—certainly a big year and a rebuilding year—and we look forward to even more opportunities for high school students to come back in the future.”