Fairfield University hosts Model UN event

Given the United States's military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with significant ongoing dialogues with world leaders in Iran, Pakistan and, most recently, in China, it is vital that young people understand complex global issues.

Learning more about the United Nation's role in foreign diplomacy was the goal of the sixth annual Model UN High School Conference hosted Friday by Fairfield University.

More than 200 students from Connecticut and New York were warmly welcomed by guest speaker Aye Aye Thant, daughter of former Secretary General of the United Nations U Thant. She is also the founder and president of the U Thant Institute.

Describing her father's tenure from 1961 to 1971 as a "tumultuous time," Thant noted that most people do not realize the significant impact the United Nations, under her father's direction, played in maintaining a peaceful solution to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

"People didn't realize how much the UN was involved," she explained. "The `man on the street' didn't realize how the UN helped to avoid a catastrophe."

Thant noted, though, that President John F. Kennedy acknowledged her father's role and applauded his diplomatic efforts, stating that he "saved the world from imminent nuclear way."

During her opening remarks, Thant often quoted her father. For example, she recounted how he admitted that the UN is not "perfect." She said, "He would say, it is not perfect because it mimics the imperfect."

Moreover, Thant noted that the UN intervened in issues that governments couldn't handle. Although he was at the helm of a peace-keeping organization, her father pointed out that "peace is not just the absence of war."

She told the high school students participating in the Model UN conference that, as a former educator, U Thant was continuously promoting educational opportunities and programs that would benefit children and young adults, such as Unicef. "This was one of his lifelong projects," she added.

She said he would be especially pleased to see the large number of students participating in Model UN clubs in their respective school districts.

"I am often asked if my father would be optimistic about the future of the world and, by seeing these faces before me today, I think, `How could he not be optimistic?' " she said. "This is a great starting point to prepare you as global citizens."

Following her talk, students broke into groups according to the country they represented.

Assuming the role of a delegate, they debated issues pertaining to countries, such as Northern Ireland, Bangladesh, Rwanda, Israel and Palestine. Among the "hot" topics covered would be social change, renewable energy and terrorism.

"Your task is to address these issues through simulation," explained Ana Siscar, an international studies professor at Fairfield University. She is also the program manager for the Jesuit Universities Humanitarian Action Network (JUHAN).

This experience of speaking out with informed opinions would, hopefully, help the teens to view themselves as "global citizens" and possibly motivate them to participate more in community service projects. Siscar also hinted at the possibility of their using diplomatic skills sometime in the future as they "address the complex challenges of the 21st century."

"At some point, you might have to decide on actual issues and you will find out they are more complicated and nuanced than the ones prepared for you today," she added.

As coordinator of Coginchaug Regional High School's Model UN Club, Kelly Falvey said that while acquiring an appreciation for global relations is important, she has also seen students develop strong communication and public speaking skills through their participation.

For the past three years, the Durham social studies teacher has helped students prepare for conferences at Fairfield, Yale and Brown universities.

"This gives them great confidence because not only do they become more aware of global issues but they also have to substantiate their claims with evidence," she said. "They cannot just give an opinion."

Through their role playing, the teens learn to be empathetic as they put themselves in someone else's shoes, so to speak.

Jessica Solomon, 14, and Lauren Trombetta, 14, said they especially enjoyed researching their countries. In preparing for her work as a delegate from Greece, Solomon said she found most of her sources online. Trombetta, who was a representative from Germany, was fortunate to be studying this country in her Global Studies class at school this semester.

The two freshmen admitted that they were nervous, though, to interact with their fellow delegates.

Falvey agreed that all of her students were frightened because they were inexperienced with the process. "They're thrown into this collaborative environment which they haven't done before so they're understandably nervous," she said. "However, they are all prepared and have done their research thoroughly."

Another Coginchaug student, Sam Gossner, 14, was excited to play the part of Burma's Minister of Energy. Although working as a diplomat is not in his immediate future plans, Gossner said he would like to major in English and history at college.

After extensively researching Burma's economic weaknesses and ongoing conflict with Bangladesh, Gossner concluded, "The nations of the world need to get in there and fix it."