• Nikunj Agarwal

Model UN: A Journey in Ten Years


I was the delegate of Sweden, in the Economic and Financial Council of the General Assembly, discussing the aftermath of the global economic crises, in 2009. The Chair of the committee asked me if I wished to make a speech.

“No”, I said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Such was my first Model UN experience.

Today, one decade and twenty conferences later, I serve as a faculty adviser at Model UN conferences, chaperoning and guiding various sets of students through the conference.

How did I get here?

Model UN – The Friend

In the last ten years, Model UN has played many roles in my life. It has transitioned from being a hobby, to a competitive activity, to a profession, to a passion.

I spent most of my school years in Bombay. However, in the middle of my 9th grade, fate had me plucked from my whole world, and placed delicately into the pollen-fields of Bangalore. Not only did I gain an allergy, but I also lost everything I knew to be home. It was tough being the ‘new kid’ in a school when every student there had been around since their early years. Groups were formed, interests defined, and I was still getting used to the idea of eating lunch at school.

And then it hit! The school was going to be organizing a Model UN conference. I had no idea what it meant, but the teachers said that it was compulsory, and that we needed to participate in pairs.

“Perfect”, I must have thought, but my optimism was short-lived.

To cut a long story short, my fellow delegate backed out of the event at the last moment, and I was left without country – without friend. The school acted quickly to dissolve my country (Vietnam, by the way), and replace my badge with one from the Press Corps.

“Interview the kids. Make it hard.”

Those were my instructions, before I was swiftly pushed onto stage. I was to emulate the role of the press, asking questions to my fellow classmates about controversial matters in their country in Arnab Goswami style.

That was my chance. And I took it.

I probably lost even more of my potential to make friends in that school that day, but I did make one friend: Model UN.

For the next year, my interests, activities and friends were largely defined by my Model UN participation. My conversations became themed around global issues and around finding legal loopholes in international treaty documents.

But then I went to that conference I first spoke about, as the Delegate of Sweden. It was three days of silent observation on my part, and that’s when I realized: I’m not even in the same league as real delegates. My friend had just been fantasy.

Model UN – The Identity

Right after that conference, I moved into junior college, or junior year of high school. Almost immediately, I enrolled myself into the Model UN Club, repeating my strategy from the previous year.

Our first conference came up pretty quickly, and I was tasked with being the Delegate of France, in the Security Council. I clearly recall, in one of my speeches, I denied “any military alliance with the USA.”

“What about NATO, delegate?”

“Umm. No, no. No military alliance with the USA.”

What had just happened? As I stood there without much realization of my faux-pas, taking in the judgmental eyes of my 16-year old peers, I learned that Model UN is not about being the illustrious, satirical, condescending speaker, but that it requires a complete and thorough understanding of international relations, foreign policies, and the general state of the world.

I could have given up on that day, and perhaps my life would have looked very different today if I did. But something attracted me about the whole experience – something called out to me, as if to say, “This is what you’ve been waiting for.”

You see, compared to many other extra-curricular activities, Model UN was the most democratic. It was student-led, student-funded, and had no faculty members on the organizing committee. It was almost like the setting of an after-class rumble in the parking lot: self-defined rules, self-imposed judgement, and no audience.

Keeping this in mind, and encouraged further by the lure of free attendance, I went on to the next conference, and the next, and many more after that.

Soon, I was winning awards more frequently than I had ever done before. My visits to the principal’s office became congratulatory instead of punitive. My absence from college became ‘necessary’ instead of problematic.

I was getting better and better at being a delegate, and in my senior year of high school, we managed to beat the strongest delegation of the city!

I had arrived and was here to stay. Or so I thought.

Model UN – The Identity Crisis

As I entered college and moved into my new shell of teenage rebellion and hormonal frustration, it seemed that so did Model UN.

College level conferences had wild parties, large sums of cash awards, provocative fashion choices, and very bad timing.

At the beginning, I was very attracted to this new type of Model UN: I could earn some easy pocket money, travel to relatively exotic locations (Manipal is much more exotic than Bombay, I might contend), and skip even the most important exams, viva and meetings.

The conference ethos was also very lax, and this meant that anyone who was even a half-bit serious about the Model UN part of the conference, could easily win an award. The outside perception however, was that winning these awards was a luxury only afforded to the godliest of delegates: an absolutely false claim.

And so, I was treated like a Rockstar. At a time when a delegate’s worth was measured in the number of awards and conferences, I was rich! I became very proud of my victories, hubristic of my confidence. I started misapplying my experiences from Model UN to my political science lectures. I started telling my classmates that their understanding of political economies was incomplete and limited. I started making niche Model UN jokes that no one would understand. I became the Rockstar that no one liked, and everyone stayed away from.

I had become a very good delegate. Just not a very good person.

I found myself weighing my Model UN accolades against my friendships, my experience against my education, and for the first time, I felt I had found myself on the wrong end of the bargain.

I didn’t want to be thought of as ‘intimidating’. My most impressive quality was not that of ‘being able to shut people up.’ I was not, as my head of department once called me, a “Model UN Major’ but was sincerely interested in studying political science.

My identity had become the problem it was meant to solve.

Model UN – The Missing Link

By the third year of my college I had completely dropped Model UN. I had withdrawn myself from the clique and replaced Model UN with the academic study of Philosophy.

Through Philosophy, I became fixed upon the notion that competitive debate was a futile effort in wasted vocabulary. Logic could only demonstrate the validity of inferences, but not the validity of premises. And it seemed that everyone just had different premises.

My need for competition was replaced by a need for understanding. Instead of questioning or disagreeing with new or radical ideas, I tried to explore them, and view them from the perspective of their audiences.

It was then that I started seeing the true benefits of my Model UN experience. I was able to participate in class discussions with ease, keep track of my reading materials, ask relevant questions, challenge and understand various perspectives, work in groups on assignments, and diplomatically navigate classroom dynamics.

Reflecting on my final year of college made me see all that Model UN had given me in terms of skill and knowledge. I decided that Model UN is not completely lost in its path. It does provide the skills it claims to provide. It does provide the knowledge that it claims to provide. The only problem, is the personality it brings with it.

You’ve all seen him: The Best Delegate. The one who will make sure they are outspoken, make sure they are the loudest voice in the room, make sure they become your ‘friends’ to earn your vote, make sure they have that silly expression of nonchalance that all such delegates do.

But that same Best Delegate is also able to ensure that discussions converge, that perspectives are identified, that fellow delegates participate, that the rules of procedure are followed, that misinformation is not allowed, that diplomatic respect is maintained.

And so Model UN was that missing link in my own story as well. The missing link between the understanding of the ‘real world’ and the understanding of theoretical models. The missing link between the citizen’s perspective and the government’s perspective. The missing link between viewing only one’s own problems to those of others. The missing link between a silent, lonely student and a successful classroom leader. The missing link between the naivete of teenagers and the disillusionment of young adults.

I don’t think I would have ever appreciated Model UN this much if it hadn’t been for my departure from it. As my Philosophy professor would often say, “You cannot comment on the nature of an elevator from inside it”, and so it was with Model UN. But once I stepped outside, I could not find anything as valuable as my Model UN experiences had been.

Model UN – The Profession

The rest of college went by swiftly. And equally quickly began my search for employment. I did not want to do something ‘meaningless’ like business consultancy, but I also did not want to do something ‘lazy’ like being a freelance writer. Of course, my opinions of these types of professions have since changed, but you can understand that this was the average perspective of a philosophy and economics graduate after college.

And so, I thought I might go back to Model UN, if only as a vocation and nothing more. My search for opportunities led me first to college-level conferences that were offering large sums of money to the executive board. I knew that this was not what I wanted to do – I did not want to become another cog in the wheel that professes competitive, aggressive Model UN.

Conferences had to be abandoned.

I then chanced upon MUNCafé, an organization that offered training to students, and co-hosted the Harvard Model UN India conference each year. It seemed perfect!

When I joined MUNCafé, I had claimed to be looking for a ‘temporary job to pass the time while looking for a real job’. And then everything changed.

I spent my first few months conducting training sessions for young students, and for other trainers, who would in turn train young students. Suddenly, I was the comptroller of Model UN for these students. It was up to my training to paint them a picture of Model UN.

And for the first time I felt the power to be able to redefine what Model UN meant and stood for. I was able to tell students about the Best Delegate and tell them from my personal experiences how to avoid becoming such a delegate. I could bring an entire new generation of students in to the fold of Model UN but without the complacency, hubris and aggression that I had witnessed upon my own entry into that world.

I saw first hand the power Model UN could have in helping other students, like me, in moving out of their comfort zones, in giving them new identities, in helping them make informed decisions and choices. And once again, just like that, I fell for Model UN, hook, line and sinker.

Model UN – The Future

Today, I am close to completing two years at MUNCafe - a brand of Worldview Education, and at Worldview itself. I have worked with more than a hundred schools, and more than a thousand students in that time – working with them to unlock the potential of Model UN.

Soon, I will also complete 10 years since my first Model UN experience, and in that decade, I have had a changing relationship with Model UN. But at this end of the spectrum, I can confidently claim that not only did Model UN change my life, but also the life of all the thousands of students like me. There is no doubt that in the coming years, alumni of the Model UN ecosystem will reach unprecedented heights of personal, professional, and all other kinds of success.

I don’t have much to say, and there isn’t a big moral lesson to this journey of mine. The only message I have for my fellow alumni, current and future MUNners, is this: Model UN may be a flawed system, but it is one that is also easily fixed. It is a system that can literally change the life of a student, and so we are all responsible to ensure that it does not do anything less than that.

Nikunj is a Sr. Manager at Worldview Education. In his time here at Worldview, Nikunj has trained and mentored students and budding trainers across the country in the many nuances of Model UN. He's also led Worldview's Impact Initiative, 'MUN For India', a campaign to bring Model UN back to basics.

#ModelUN #Educationsystem #Experience

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