Alma College’s Model UN Team Discovers the Challenges of Diplomacy in India

This is part three in a three part Citizen Diplomacy series highlighting how cross-border experiences shape individuals and their communities. Read part one here.  Read part two here. 

Sweat dripped down my neck as I sat in a classroom with 40 high-school students from across northern India at TERI University in New Delhi. Without climate control, the temperature in the room hovered around 80 degrees. My full black pantsuit was only the first of several bungled decisions I would confront over the course of the 3 days.

I was in India to help lead the 2013 Brainwiz National Model United Nations Conference. Hundreds of high-school students from across Delhi had gathered to represent countries around the world in simulations of the UN General Assembly and other international bodies. Each participant had spent months learning about the country they were representing in negotiation.

I thought I knew what to expect. After all, I had spent the last 2 years representing countries like Sierra Leone and St. Vincent and the Grenadines at the Midwest and National Model UN Conferences in the United States with successful results. In fact, in the last 20 years, Alma College has won more “Outstanding Delegation” awards at the most prestigious Model UN (MUN) conference in the world, National Model UN in New York City, than any other academic institution. Because of that distinction, we’d been invited by the Department of State to help run a MUN conference for Indian high school and college students. The diplomacy initiative was part of a larger policy for the Embassy of the United States, focused on improving relations with India. But things were not going as planned.

At Alma College, our mentor Dr. Derick Hulme pushed us to be expert compromisers, not just experts on our country. “You don’t have all the answers,” he often reminded us. “The more you listen to others’ ideas, the more they will want to work with you, and the better your resolution will be.”

Our MUN curriculum was interactive, based on the fact that people learn by doing, not listening to lectures.  In only the second week of class, new team members are required to bring two separate resolutions written in formal UN-language outlining solutions to problems like HIV/AIDS, hunger, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and climate change. The team is then split into groups to read, edit, and comment on the resolutions one at a time, with MUN veterans leading the discussion. It’s a steep learning curve, but in the end, each member of our team understood how to lead a group of delegates toward a common goal: one, cohesive statement of innovative solutions.

I expected the conference in India to have the same priorities. I quickly realized I was wrong. On the first day, I watched as the co-chairs of the Model UN Environment Programme directed students to stand, one by one, and give speeches about our topic—climate change. I was impressed watching the 14 and 15-year-olds speak, in perfect formal English, about renewable energy, biodiversity, and the changing chemistry of the oceans.

But where, I wondered, were the conversations and discussions I’d come to expect? Students didn’t seem to engage with one another. Instead, they would stand and object to the remarks of fellow delegates, interrupting their speech and standing to be recognized in the hopes of adding to their score. It quickly turned into an ultra-competitive debate, with hours of back and forth arguments. I was losing interest, and I worried the students were, too. I went home at the end of the day frustrated.

At the hotel that night, I talked with my fellow teammates, who were mentoring other committees. They had similar complaints—the chairs were recognizing delegates only for making speeches, not taking into account their contributions to meaningful collaboration: the atmosphere wasn’t conducive to negotiation or compromise. To us, MUN was about more than proving your knowledge about a world problem—it was about working together and finding common ground. Could we push our Indian colleagues to pursue a similar agenda?

The next morning, we approached the director of the conference with our concerns. Was there, we wondered, another way? We wanted to change the schedule to reserve the majority of our committees’ time for work without the burden of formal procedure, to encourage engagement directly between delegates instead of through the Chair. Our partner, the educational non-profit Brainwiz, was reluctant to make any changes. Any drastic shifts, they said, could upset students who were used to this format. Both parties were equally convinced that their way was better. And the more we argued, the more offended everyone was and the less anyone wanted to solve anything.

We sounded, I realized, a lot like the students at this conference. We had an opportunity to do exactly what I wanted my delegates to do—focus on agreement and compromise. It was clear that we all had the same goal: to create a stimulating experience of international negotiation and to empower students to make positive change in the world. What if we could just tip the scales a bit, give a little more weight to working together than arguing? We could still give them a chance to make their speeches, but maybe leave an hour here and there throughout the day for writing and working together.

If convincing the conference director to change course was difficult, convincing the volunteer staff of the Model UNEP, my particular committee, was nearly impossible. But eventually, we found common ground. In each session at the conference, there would be an “un-moderated caucus,” a period of 45 minutes for informal discussion and writing UN-style reports outlining the challenges and solutions that the students discussed. The students were more than prepared for the challenge. Now, instead of using their hours of research and preparation to prove each other wrong, they were working together to get everyone’s ideas into one cohesive statement.

The reaction to this new part of the conference was mixed. Some delegates were confused by what was expected of them during the “un-moderated caucus” period and instead of participating, sat at their computers unengaged. But most of the students took the challenge head-on, quickly separating into small groups to cover the different sections of a UN report. Some enjoyed it so much that they brought their teachers and friends in to see their work. In the end, our students put together a 15-page report outlining the challenges and solutions to climate change with impressive thought and detail. But not everyone saw this as a success: some of the staff was satisfied, but others were seriously disgruntled.

While the overall outcome was ultimately success, I did learn a couple of important lessons. First, in starting a partnership with anyone, I found out just how important it was to do my homework. We had not done anything to prepare ourselves for the possibility that the Brainwiz conference might deviate from our typical MUN format, which was naïve. Second, assumptions, while unavoidable, also create obstacles to progress. Our brains automatically make conclusions—which can be good and bad. The existence of these assumptions is not in itself a problem, but how we react to them can make all the difference. After we’d realized our programs were completely different, we fought to keep what we thought was the “correct” way, the only way, instead of listening, adjusting and finding a compromise. The conference was my first real-life experience in diplomacy, and helped me discover just how much you can learn by getting out of your comfort zone and into a challenging collaborative environment.

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