As assignments go, the one facing the Elmhurst College Model United Nations team at the American Model UN Conference in Chicago was uniquely unenviable.
Each year, colleges participating in the conference are tasked with playing the role of a different country, with students acting as diplomats who debate, negotiate and caucus in committees and sessions patterned after actual UN meetings. At last November’s conference, Elmhurst’s team played the role of Syria, whose government attacks on rebel forces in that country’s ongoing civil war have drawn international condemnation.
“It was a challenge for all of our students because they had to defend policies the rest of the world condemns,” said Associate Professor Michael Lindberg, Elmhurst’s Model UN faculty advisor. “But they stepped up to the plate and played their roles accurately and forcefully.”
The Elmhurst students performed their challenging assignment so well that they brought home an award for Best Delegation. That honor recognized the work of Ben Kaplan, a senior from Des Plaines, and Abdul Abufilat, a junior from Villa Park, who role-played Syrian diplomats in a committee session.
The American Model UN Conference drew about 1,500 participants from 75 colleges and universities. Students prepare by researching the nation they are to represent, its history and its government’s policies on various international issues. They must also master the rules and parliamentary procedures of the UN.
Lindberg said some of his students were concerned about the reception they would get from role-playing delegates from other colleges when they tried to defend the Syrian government’s position in their roles as Syrian diplomats.
“They weren’t sure how the other delegates would respond,” he said. “The debate does get heated. But everyone understands that they are playing roles.”
Because Syria doesn’t sit on the UN Security Council, conference organizers asked Elmhurst to send delegates to represent both the Syrian government and opposition parties before the council. Lindberg said the latter role was particularly meaningful to Nora Ghabra, a sophomore from Oak Brook, whose family is from Syria and who has relatives living there.
“It was very real for her because of her personal connection with what is going on there,” Lindberg said.
Elmhurst students don’t always play roles that place them so squarely at the heart of international controversy. In 2011, for example, Elmhurst students at the conference represented Malta, no one’s idea of a geopolitical power.
“In the end, though, it doesn’t matter what role they’re playing, because it’s up to the students to make the most of the experience,” Lindberg said.
Elmhurst has been active in Model UN since 1997. For the past two years, participants have been able to earn credit for their work as part of a class Lindberg offers through the College’s Honors Program. (The class is open to non-honors students as well.)
“What keeps students coming back is the opportunity to learn to communicate and negotiate and interact with others,” Lindberg said. “They learn about the workings of the UN, but the real value is in honing their communication skills.”