Chico State’s Model United Nations class returns to the Big Apple for a job nobody wanted—representing the U.S.
“Amazing,” Soumaya Errafi says about her first visit to the United Nations General Assembly chambers in New York. “There you are, standing in this immense room with thousands of seats, looking out over the actual space where famous leaders and representatives from all over the world come to discuss matters of great importance.”
Her memory stems from last year, during her first semester as a participant in the National Model United Nations annual conference. Here, thousands of students from a wide variety of majors, from international studies and political science to philosophy, engage every year in current events and foreign policy by representing different countries in a simulation of an actual UN meeting. They enact all kinds of parliamentary maneuvers in order to promote their own country’s policies.
The annual New York conference, which is sponsored by the National Collegiate Conference Association, is the highlight of Chico State University’s Model UN course, taught for the last 30 years by Dr. Richard Ostrom. It’s a venue where the Chico State team has begun to make a splash in recent years.
In April 2001, the event was held at UN headquarters and at the Grand Hyatt hotel at Grand Central Station. The Chico State class succeeded in being one of only eight teams out of 187 to win an outstanding-delegation award, for its representation of the Netherlands. Over the last 11 years, Chico State has won various awards (from honorable mention to outstanding) 10 different times—including top honors in 2000 for a position paper, or statement of policy, when the class represented Belarus.
Pretty soon, this year’s 33-member class will take another exciting road trip back to New York for the conference being held March 25-30—only this time, they will have what many consider a tougher task: representing their own country, the United States.
Ostrom still remembers when the Model UN program was in its infancy at Chico State. During his welcome meeting upon arrival here in 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War, he sat next to former state Assemblyman Ray Johnson, a genial but conservative man who would eventually establish funding for “instructionally related activities” on campus—with money going to such things as debate teams, drama and, eventually, what would become the Model UN team.
“This guy was a real right-winger, a domino-theory guy,” remembers Ostrom. “He was upset with all the protests and anti-war sentiment of the late ‘60s. So, for his own reasons, he actually ended up helping to establish this [Model UN program]. He wanted more patriotism on campuses.”
Since then, Ostrom has served as instructor ("I pretty much just advise and step in for disasters,” he jokes), watching and enjoying as interest increased and Chico State teams slowly improved to their current level of skill.
Each year, students find out which countries they will represent after submitting a list of preferred choices in October.
“This year I was contacted by the secretary general of the entire program,” Ostrom explains. “He told us that nobody [out of some 200 schools] wanted to represent the United States, so we took up the challenge.”
Ostrom explains that the U.S. is usually an unpopular choice among American schools because it is the most familiar option and usually allows the least mistakes, since speakers are under a bigger microscope and are more likely to be caught and ridiculed for any slip-ups on their own country’s policies. Most schools prefer the role of villain or, to use a more current phrase, the “axis of evil” teams like Iraq or North Korea.
“A lot of times, people like to take the complete opposite viewpoint, be the rogue state,” Ostrom notes. “You learn to see things from a different perspective … plus they have the better buzzwords. Once, this guy wanted to be China simply so he could always call the United States ‘the running dogs of imperialism.’ You have to know the vocabulary of your given country.”
Ostrom admits candidly that sitting through a whole day of the actual conference is rough for someone who is not directly participating.
“Oh, I can’t stand a whole day of it,” he says. “The details are unbelievable … and these [students] go day and night, probably averaging around four hours of sleep.”
When asked what accounts for the recent success of Chico State groups, Ostrom conjectures that one small advantage Chico students might have is that they are more socially adept (he cites the “party image” of the school). But all class members have to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, he says, in areas ranging from public speaking to research and writing. In doing so, they learn the value of teamwork and how to help each other. By the end of the conference, students have first-hand experience in diplomacy and negotiation.
Having already started his own kids at the high-school level of Model UN, Ostrom believes the class is a true confidence builder for students and sharpens communication skills they will likely need later in life.
“You’re there trying to sell your assigned country’s positions,” he says. “And that requires a number of skills, from schmoozing and knowing how to win others’ confidence to communicating in large and small groups. … Everyone has to have a broad understanding of their given country’s policies so they can answer questions from different fields when it’s their turn in the spotlight.”
As the number of participants has grown at the national conference from a small forum in the 1940s to over 2,500 participants from 200 schools nowadays, so has the interest that surrounds this class.
“This year’s class is probably the most excited I’ve seen,” he says. “And a lot of that credit is due to the invaluable asset of returning students, people like Richard Elsom. … That guy is a Model UN junkie. … He should have a Ph.D. in it by now.”
“I come back for the excitement,” says Elsom, a former Associated Students president and four-time veteran of the Security Council level who has personally tasted veto power and liked it. “I’m really there in an advisory capacity, working with newcomers. … It’s a great class because you get the thrill of watching so many shy, young students come in kind of curious about global issues and eventually become totally passionate about their topic. It’s a light-over-the-head kind of experience that really empowers the student in a way that few classes can. They do detailed research and learn their topics entirely on their own. This kind of student-centeredness is a rare and beautiful thing.”
Currently a master’s candidate in the political-science program, Elsom has made the trip to New York nine times and says this year’s group is the largest and most talented mix of veterans and newcomers that he has worked with.
“As the U.S., you’re in the driver’s seat, and if you take your foot off the pedal, everybody wonders why the bus is slowing down,” Elsom says.
Third-year international-studies major Laura Blumenstein is in her first semester as a member of the class. She says she wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
“Once I got here I quickly realized how much hard work was involved working on the position papers, which took me about two months.”
In preparation, individual classes revolve around giving speeches and understanding foreign policies so that one can clearly represent and defend statements in the public forum of the larger simulation. Classes have the advantage of using Chico State’s subscription to an optical disc system ($1250 a year), a focused daily search engine that uses the same database that actual United Nations ambassadors use to compile information from various global resolutions and press releases.
Blumenstein’s particular emphasis was in international labor organization—quality, equity, workers’ rights. She says the tough part is the large amount of material to learn so that you are “not getting caught” by another country during the two-minute presentations.
“But once you figure out your country’s position on a few things, it tends to lead you through the others,” she says.
Many of the students said they were excited for the New York trip simply because they would be meeting so many new people from around the world.
One method the class uses to assimilate the large amounts of information is carrying “buzzwords” among topics. For the United States, these are words like “democracy,” “empowerment,” “ideals” and “free-market system.”
This year’s students are already anticipating the heat they may receive for the current U.S. administration’s stance on everything from the Kyoto Treaty on Global Warming to the Geneva Convention.
“Even if you don’t agree with the policies, you have to be accountable for budgets and stay within the ideals of your country’s policies,” says student Saul Henson. “But there’s still some room to tweak things, and that’s the challenge—trying to forge through with diplomacy.”
“Things are looking good for this year’s group,” says senior Mark Bourgeois, president of the Model UN class. “I’ve been pleased to watch them grow since the beginning to where I think they’re now up to the task.”
Looking ahead, their teacher doesn’t see much more to worry about this year than any other, even after Sept. 11.
“In actuality, this is probably the best year in a while to be the United States," Ostrom says. "We’re the ones who will likely get all the sympathy in New York. When discussing matters of terrorism, for instance, we can simply say, ‘Hey, look right over there—go take a train down to ground zero. See for yourself the results.' "