Exploring the World Through the Model United Nations Program
Statesmen in Training
Though Brandon Sheets grew up in a small Texas town, he was no stranger to the world when he flew to the United Nations in New York last spring with fellow students from The University of Texas at Tyler.
A political science major from Lindale, Sheets previously took several courses geared toward international relations and even served in Iraq with the U.S. Army.
He was returning to the international stage this time, however, to hone his negotiating and peacemaking skills with the award-winning UT Tyler Model United Nations Program, designed to introduce students to international diplomacy and the UN. In a simulation setting, they compete against other students from around the world while assuming the role of diplomat in negotiating on behalf of countries assigned to them.
"Even with all the classes I've taken, there's still a lot I learned about the United Nations that I probably would have never known had I not been involved in this program," said Sheets, a senior who aspires to be a foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department.
Learning – and Winning
UT Tyler Model UN participants get to globetrot and learn about the world, and are winning awards along the way.
They have competed at conferences in places as far away as the Czech Republic, France and Oxford University in England. Representing Lebanon at the 2012 National Model United Nations–Europe Conference in Lille, France, UT Tyler received the prestigious "Outstanding Delegation" award for being in the top 1 percent of conference participants.
And at the conference in New York, where students compete annually in the spring, UT Tyler has received numerous honors over the years, including Outstanding Delegates in Committee and Outstanding Position Paper awards and honorable mention for excellence in committee.
UT Tyler students represented Sri Lanka at the 2012 New York conference.
"We had to come together and actually produce something – figuring out how to get what our country, Sri Lanka, wanted, and in a way that other countries would want to sign on to the same thing," said Sheets.
The idea is to learn by doing, said Rachel Bzostek, assistant professor of political science and director of the UT Tyler program.
"If we want to teach the next generation of statesmen how to actually resolve conflicts ... one of the best ways to do that is through simulation," she said. "I think that's one of the goals behind Model UN simulations as a whole – to actually be like a statesmen-in-training program."
From Class to Conference
Undergraduate students participate first by taking the Model UN course in the fall, in which they learn about foreign policy, international issues, international organizations, international relations theories and the UN. Undergraduate students who succeed in the first semester are invited to enroll in the second semester course in the spring, which includes the New York trip.
Graduate students participate by taking Topics in Comparative Politics in the fall, through which they take a trip abroad to compete at international Model UN conferences.
Thus, coursework lays the educational foundation, while conference trips help bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world. Students research their assigned UN member state and important international issues, such as human rights, international law and the environment. Then at conference, they advocate for solutions to issues debated in committee that are in line with the interests of their assigned country.
UT Tyler students have represented a variety of UN member states, including Lebanon, Denmark, Italy, Kazakhstan, Guatemala, El Salvador, Turkey, Argentina, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Bahrain.
"There's something to be said for learning about the way other people see things and view the world around us, and I think that's the best thing this program does," Bzostek said.
Perhaps most challenging to students is that the perspectives of their assigned countries do not always jive with their own.
"You may have to defend some things that personally you don't really agree with, but you have to be able to justify them, so it makes you see both sides of any situation," said Kenisha Schuster, assistant program director for UT Tyler Model UN and an alumna of the program.
Though there are dozens of collegiate simulations worldwide, the National Model UN-New York Conference is the largest and most prestigious, said Marcus Stadelmann, chair of the UT Tyler Department of Political Science and History. Thousands of students attend the conference each year, and more than half are from outside the U.S.
Because it is held at the UN itself, international diplomacy comes to life for students. Closing ceremonies are held in the actual General Assembly Hall, and the proximity to UN delegation offices sometimes makes it possible to connect with actual UN diplomats. For instance, UT Tyler students got to meet with the Sri Lankan representatives to the UN at their delegation's office in Manhattan this year.
Stadelmann created the Model UN program at UT Tyler in 2006 upon student request.
"It has given UT Tyler a nice national/international reputation. We're fairly well known even in Europe now," he said. "I would argue we're among the top three Model UN programs in the state of Texas, and we're definitely in the top 10 percent in the United States."
UT Tyler delegates put much effort into preparing for and participating in Model UN events – and it pays off.
The Outstanding Delegation award they received this year in France is the highest honor given at a Model UN event. It is given to the top five delegations based on teamwork, leadership, speaking and negotiating abilities, knowledge of issues and proper use of procedure rules.
"That was the first time we had ever won that award," said Bzostek. "It was five women – they performed amazingly and were on the top of their game."
The group, including Schuster, Alisa Cerney, Alina Dolzhenko-Tatkova, Hannah Waggoner and Samantha Winn, also won the "Outstanding Position Papers" award for their writings associated with the Security Council and the UN Conference on Sustainable Development.
Winn, a senior with a double major in history and political science, spoke about the challenge of winning those awards.
"Any time we represent a country like Lebanon, which is orientated out of the West, it's very difficult to reconcile your personal beliefs with the political beliefs of that country, because you have to represent them faithfully. But I feel like we had a really strong team that had a great foundation in UT Tyler's political science program,'' the Tyler resident said.
"We had a very comprehensive view of comparative political science theories, and that was something that really helped us."
To challenge students, Bzostek pushes them to represent countries whose views are likely to diverge from their own.
"The joy of it, for me at least, is thinking about something from a different perspective and putting yourself in their shoes," Bzostek said. "For instance, the Sri Lankan people see global warming differently than Americans do. To small island nations, rising sea levels make a much bigger difference than they do to us."
Becoming Global Citizens
The benefits of participating in the UT Tyler Model UN Program are many.
"It's a great way to make connections, especially if you want to get involved in international affairs," Stadelmann said, noting a number of prominent people who have been Model UN students.
Through the program, students acquire writing and speaking skills and gain insight into foreign cultures. They learn how to bargain, compromise, formulate opinions and think about the pros and cons of issues.
Just traveling beyond Texas borders is educational for many students, who are first-generation college students and have not previously been exposed to a variety of views beyond their home region, Stadelmann said.
"The Model UN program turns you into a global citizen," he said. "It's kind of interesting to see a 20-year-old from a small town in East Texas walking down a street in London or Oxford saying, 'Oh my God, I didn't even know that existed.'"
While the students all seem to enjoy the foreign travel aspect of the program, their participation is fueled by a greater desire to make a difference in the world.
"There are so many issues in the world in general that could benefit from better dialogue, better participation within the United Nations," said Schuster, who also got to represent the university in a 10-day travel study class in Turkey.
Sheets and Winn urge other students to enroll in the UT Tyler Model UN Program.
"It's a great opportunity,'' Winn said. "I have made more friends through that program than I have anywhere else in my college career, and it's just been an incredible experience."
The UT Tyler political science and history department also formed the Tyler Collegiate Model United Nations Club to raise awareness among students about contemporary world issues. The organization is open to students whether or not they are enrolled in Model UN courses.
For more information about Model UN programs at UT Tyler, contact Bzostek at 903.566.7410, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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