When Community School student Leila Sandlin stood before a mock United Nations, the 18-year-old American spoke for North Korea.
Trying on “diametrically opposing” views from countries like North Korea can be simultaneously uncomfortable and enlightening for students participating in the Model UN, a replica of the real international body designed to promote global peace and security.
“It’s a really good exercise in being able to look beyond yourself and trying to hold an objective view when you’re trying to represent something that you may not represent on your own,” Sandlin said.
Sixteen high school students including Sandlin boarded a plane Sunday to Bilbao, Spain, to compete in a mock UN tournament. The team consists of students from Jackson Hole High School, Journeys School and the Jackson Hole Community School. They will compete against 24 schools from places like England, Belgium, Germany, France, Albania and Cameroon at the international conference.
Students were busy preparing position papers and conducting research leading up to the competition halfway around the world, where they’re assigned countries to represent. That’s not always an easy task.
Rivkah Bar-or, 17, a Jackson Hole High School senior, assumed the role of Saudi Arabia during a disarmament and international security committee at a conference in Vancouver, B.C. The topic was the crisis in Yemen, something “her” country is deeply involved in.
She described the experience as “basically having to go sit down while people attacked my country for two hours.” And another student, Warren Levy, 16, a junior at Journeys School, represented Indonesia on a human rights council and had to defend extrajudicial killings.
“It was difficult for me to find a way to justify my country’s viewpoints,” he said. “It also pushed me to think about the different advantages to things like that.”
The high school Model UN team appeals to students for a variety of reasons — a social opportunity, a chance to build character and public speaking skills and a way of expanding their horizons outside Wyoming. Levy said participating in the team made him “feel very cultured and international.”
“I feel like a limit in U.S. schools is that we focus on world history, we don’t really focus on the present world issues,” Bar-or said. “Model UN is such a great way to see that and learn more about it and consistently stay updated.”
Samantha Smith, 17, a senior at Jackson Hole High School, said she liked looking around at the Canada conference and seeing students from all over the map.
“I think we all noticed, ‘Oh, there’s some kids from Germany here, there’s some kids from Japan here,’” she said. “It’s a great way to meet new people.”
Bar-or liked seeing how high school cultures vary.
“Living in Jackson, I honestly feel like we’re pretty sheltered,” she said. “We don’t really get to see much outside of that.”
Jackson Hole High School Model UN coach Jeff Brazil agreed, saying that cultural awareness is “something our school district is trying to work on — it’s something our community is trying to work on.
“Even just that exposure to a different group of people, whether that’s East Coasters or prep school kids, it’s just exposure to different cultural groups as they travel and they interact in a really intense way,” he said.
Some had older siblings who urged them to check it out, while others wanted to develop their confidence. Many are exposed to the club through upper-level world history classes in their schools, some of which have historically required participation in the local Model UN conference every fall.
This November, Lindsey Ehinger, executive director of InterConnections 21, said they had to cap the number of students involved at 200 because it was so popular. Ten schools in the region participated.
“We filled the conference within 24 hours this year,” she said.
The nonprofit sees itself as a bridge between the local and the global, between generations, and between hometown schools and the halls of the United Nations. It creates programs to help students, teachers and communities learn about world issues and how to take action, and focuses on international service trips for students, a global speaker series and the Teton County Model UN program.
Teachers see growth
Teachers say it’s evident who in their class participates in Model UN or the speech and debate team.
“I’ve watched some kids doing this from freshman year to senior year and they just really mature throughout the process,” Brazil said. “That’s kind of intangible … but it’s pretty obvious to me.”
Those students learn to debate without a “scorched earth” approach, he said.
“To me, one of the big things our country is losing is this ability to be diplomatic and work with people who have different points of view,” Brazil said.
While the team has traveled before to places like Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the University of California-Berkeley and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., this is it first trip this far flung.
Students did the bulk of the fundraising themselves, bringing in $21,000. You might have seen them outside grocery stores selling raffle tickets and coffee or even as servers at Pizzeria Caldera.
“It was really driven by the students and a couple of the parents,” Brazil said.
Accomplishments now, to come
The team has done well at tournaments outside the Tetons. They’re consistently recognized with individual and team awards and even won the best delegation from a small school award at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Students do really well when they travel,” Ehinger said.
Graduates of the Jackson Model UN program have gone on to spread the good word. A few joined their college or university’s club, while others started their own at institutions where there wasn’t one. A few even went on to work at the United Nations.
Students say Model UN is shaping them in a variety of ways. Jackson senior Samantha Smith said she’s taking the diplomacy and public speaking skills with her after she graduates.
“I think that can really be applied to anything you’re going into,” Smith said. “Whether that’s trying to make treaties with other people or really just trying to get along.”
Teammate Bar-or might take it a little more literally. She was exposed to foreign affairs at a young age through a family friend who was a diplomat.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know anything cooler than this,’” she said. “I decided there and then that I was going to be a diplomat.”