It’s a small world after all. And high school students from Highland Park and Deerfield not only made it smaller but dominated a part of it earlier this month at the 38th National High School Model UN conference in New York City.
Out of 204 high schools and 2,300 students from all over the United States the top three spots went to Highland Park High School, Deerfield High School and Deerfield’s Chicagoland Jewish High School (CJHS). CJHS has an enrollment approaching 170.
Highland Park, a perennial powerhouse in the Model UN world, kept its legacy intact and came in first. Deerfield, also well-known for excelling in the competition, tied for second with CJHS, which began its program only four years ago.
In addition to the delegation successes, some students earned distinctions as members of specialized committees and commissions.
Coaches and students alike said they were astounded at their teams’ success and attributed it to a lot of dedication, hard work and the cooperative atmosphere fostered with Model UN.
CJHS Coach Myra Loris should know. She headed the Highland Park program for more than 20 years before retiring from Township High School District 113. Four years ago she decided to spend part of her retirement starting the CJHS program.
“Unlike much of their learning, this experience has real life consequences,” Loris said. “They begin to understand the real nature of global problems, more than they’d ever get in a classroom. This gives them some sense of being in the real world instead of in school. It’s a real sense of real life.”
Here’s How it all Works
For four days, students step into the shoes of delegates from UN member states and debate issues on the organization's agenda, such as the crises in Chechnya and Pakistan, integrating child soldiers back into society, deforestation in Central America and the global debt crisis.
They make speeches, prepare draft resolutions, negotiate with allies and adversaries, resolve conflicts and navigate the conference rules of procedure.
Some students become representatives of different countries to committees of different sizes and varying focuses.
They do not get to New York unprepared. In November clubs get their country assignment, their list of committee assignments and the two topics on which they must prepare position papers. Those papers must be written from their assigned country point of view.
Papers must be prepared on both topics, as participants won’t know what will be up for debate until the conference. Schools could get lucky and have two students assigned to the same committee; in that case each student would only have to focus on one topic. Sometimes students have to prepare papers on each, according to Loris.
The effort is exacting, challenging, intense and time-consuming. Older “delegates” mentor the younger ones, while coaches also work on strategies to help them prepare and succeed.
Besides spending a lot of time in meetings, informal gatherings, discussions and the like, "delegates" visited their real-life counterparts at their consuls in New York City. CJHS kept a blog of its entire journey.
In the end the hard work paid off, participants said. Benjamin Forester, a senior CJHS senior from Deerfield who represented Belgium on the Council on the European Union, said it was an incredible experience learning how international committees work and how nations come together. His committee focused on the sovereign debt crisis globally.
Four members of the CHHS team are from Deerfield and three from Highland Park.
An imposing part of the trip was the final day when many of the students came into the hall of the General Assembly and presented their final product.
“It’s breath-taking,” Forester said. “I’ve been on the team for four years and this hall is where world diplomats sit and make the decision on the fate of the planet. It’s pretty amazing.”
Part of UNESCO’s agenda included increasing the education level and support for teachers by 2015. The real UN hasn’t taken much action on this, she said.
Bank was called on and read the proposal. She admitted she was a bit nervous and in a little awe. “It was a huge honor,” she said.
Some committee work is down-right difficult. For Suzanne Warshell, a sophomore at Highland Park, her assignment meant digging deep into the UN’s past and assessing what ultimately may apply to today’s crises.
As a member of the Historical Security Council, she represented the United States in discussions on how to end the violence between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil rebels in 1991. She said the committee had to come up with a long-term way of stabilizing the region.
One part of that was finding a political solution that would provide incentives for minority groups to be part of the government, Warshell said. They looked at government models that worked, such as the model in Northern Ireland.
“I enjoyed working on specialized smaller groups because it’s easier to focus more on relationships and get to know everyone better,” Warshell said.
What They Came Away With
It’s easy to see how empowering the experience can be for students. Warshell learned the skills of a diplomat. “I learned how to work with people and how to put personal relationships aside to create the most effective solution,” she said.
Bank said spending countless hours writing the resolution gave her the ability to make sure that all voices are heard.
“It’s given me confidence on so many levels, like debating and how to write solutions to problems,” Bank said. “I am making a difference and showing myself as a leader. I plan to pursue Model UN in college.”
Forester noted that reading people and finding ways of connecting and working with them is invaluable.
“We helped each other out and figured out what we might need to do to get to the next level,” Forester said. “This gives us a good strong base for mentoring the next group of kids who come in.”