‘The MUN Olympics’, read the sign emblazoned across the conference hall. A rather bold statement and one I was relatively unprepared for, having spent the last 24 hours flying out to East Asia. Groggy, excited and feeling a little bit out of my depth I ambled across the hall to register for the five day marathon I had voluntarily decided to take part in. Somehow I had managed to find myself in Seoul, South Korea, at one of the world’s most competitive debating conferences, the Harvard World Model United Nations. I was just one of a legacy of hundreds of students from the UK and countless delegations from university campuses around Britain that had attended World MUN over the years.
Model United Nations, or ‘MUN’ as the veterans call it, is a format of simulated debate that does its best to mirror the process, procedure and general ‘goings on’ of committee sessions of the real United Nations. Students from the broadest of study levels including university, high school and beyond take part in it from across the world. WorldMUN was started in 1991 by students at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has long-since grown to be one of the largest international conferences, sometimes referred to on the circuit as the ‘Olympics of Model UN’. However unlike its Olympic counterpart, the event is held every year in a different international city. Harvard Students involved in WorldMUN typically get involved with three conferences over three years, at three different locations. Experience and confidence was clear in the professional organisation and execution of the conference, and in my committee itself. Larger than, or on-par with its primary competitor conferences and definitely a lot more fun than many of them, WorldMUN is a very competitive environment to gain entry into.
However, to offer a warning found in 500 Days of Summer: ‘This is not a love story’. This is a story about the student experience. Thousands, if not tens of thousands of students partake in MUN all across the world. Many leading politicians, business figures, professionals and so forth have taken part in MUN, although they may not admit it at first. As geeky as the university debate team but as international as the real United Nations, it is a very special kind of environment that all too often doesn’t get mentioned enough when someone details their university experience. It’s even invaded popular culture, finding its way into episodes of the popular shows ‘Parks and Recreation’ and ‘Community’.
That’s not to say MUN can’t have a bad side. WorldMUN is always special because for many young, bright eyed students that participate, it (and its chief competitor, the New York-based National Model United Nations) represents the pinnacle of their MUN career. I don’t use the word career here lightly either: people take MUN very seriously. Way too seriously at times. For some students, it counts as part of their academic grade whilst other students form their own national cartel-like MUN teams to debate at the big conferences. MUN itself, which I imagined started out as a means to promote tolerance, respect, learning and diplomacy, has over time become slowly more corporate, less fun, more serious and much more award-orientated for the delegates.
For someone like me who was a delegate for the sights, company, and experience (and to be frank, was lucky to even get on the team), I couldn’t have cared less about awards. Sure, I was serious, but not to the extent that I wore matching uniforms (and I’m not talking about the West Point delegates either). This article started out as an epitaph to my MUN days. Indoctrinated since the age of 14, it has been a huge part of my life which I’m not ashamed to admit. However, after starting, I realize now this eulogises my time in MUN. Therefore, I think I’m qualified to pass a few critical judgements on my experiences. I’d officially retired from the ‘game’ the previous year, but efficient economic costings enticed me to partake once more. Preparation, it’s safe to say, was muted by a busy schedule, but I decided to go along nonetheless. Not just to see the wonderful city of Seoul, but to have fun before I graduated into the ‘real world’ as my employed peers kept on referring to post-academic life as.
During the five days several things stood out. Firstly, the sheer dedication of the organisers. Secondly, the emotion of those involved and thirdly something that kept on being referred to as the ‘WorldMUN spirit’. After harassing my chair in the General Assembly Committee (a final year student and Applied Math Major at Harvard), I was able to get some answers to some of my questions and responses to my observations. I opened with the obvious “What got you involved in MUN?”. Her reply was typical of most other MUN delegates I’d spoken to: it was a big extracurricular activity in their home country, in this case Pakistan, and she had enjoyed public speaking and parliamentary style debating for a while.
“Why is WorldMUN important?”
Three themes came across here from our conversation. The international environment was a major factor. Meeting people from diverse backgrounds and being exposed to different cultures within an environment in which everyone was united by their love of MUN, seemed a particularly powerful reason. The second theme was World MUN’s place as a forum for collaboration and diplomacy. There is definitely a sense that WorldMUN can promote learning and cross-cultural understanding. From what I saw, at least in my committee and in my chairs, this was exactly the case. The third theme was the seemingly vacuous phrase the ‘WorldMUN spirit’. I had heard this phrase parroted since the first day and like every social science student I was more than cynical.
“So what is the WorldMUN Spirit?”
The response was simply to take the previous two and combine them together. What makes WorldMUN important is exactly the spirit that they kept on talking about. The understanding of other perspectives, the bravery of debating serious issues, the crossing of international cultural boundaries and tolerance of others is essentially what it boiled down to. At this point, the interview trailed off into a conversation of similar MUN experiences. What my chair was talking about was exactly what I had seen in every conference I had attended, the reason I had gotten involved in MUN to begin with and why I had continued to come back. I concluded that the WorldMUN Spirit is really the spirit of international community and fraternity between people, and that WorldMUN itself embodies that highest of human aspirations that we find in international organisations or movements, such as the United Nations.
Now, I shared all the sentiments of my chair (or at least I thought I did). However, I’m not above being critical. To its credit, WorldMUN doesn’t stratify its awards like other conferences and for the most part delegates leave feeling satisfied and happy. Unfortunately like other conferences, delegates at times descended into pettiness driven by personal desire for meritorious recognition amongst their peers. To be fair this has little to with WorldMUN, the way it is organised or its organisers themselves. The recognition of achievement is normal in all walks of life.
Instead, I think MUN as a whole has to a small degree become infected by the workplace culture of ultra-competitiveness and cutthroat politicking. Maybe it’s because we watch our own politicians and think that’s how we should act in order to be successful, or because of the influence of shows like House of Cards that glorify and make that kind of culture ‘cool’. People get the impression that MUN has become a tragic case of art imitating life – life imitating art. However, to its credit, I would say WorldMUN out of all the conferences I’ve been to, or other types of model simulation conferences I’ve attended has been the most resistant to this kind of culture.
It’s a story about students, after all. As students we’re excited and idealistic. Despite all our intelligence and fancy degrees, we still have a lot of growing up to do. At MUN conferences students may stab people in the back occasionally and try to outdo each other, but MUN conferences provide students with an experience much different to other types of debating. It teaches us life skills about how to approach people, how to act, how to speak in an environment which is governed fundamentally by the goodwill, ethics and, yes, the ‘spirit’ of the UN. Hacks may criticise it as naïve and idealistic, but they’re good values to instill in young, furiously intelligent students that will hopefully graduate and move out to influence the world.
Looking back at the long time I’ve spent doing MUN, many memorable moments come to mind. Whether it be getting ‘lost in translation’ in Seoul, just as my did when they travelled to Melbourne. Our final conference there however has left me with a feeling that the party is over. Over the years MUN has provided a family; a network of friends that I will take with me into the future. WorldMUN emphasises this. It’s an intense undertaking, and you get to know your delegation or co-organisers pretty well.
When all is said and done, you’re left with a good many memories: crazy ones with your committee, good ones with new friends and yes, even the post MUN blues (I’ve even heard some people call it MUNpression, or MUNflu). All I know is that if such a phenomenon does exist, it’s simply because MUN, and especially WorldMUN, is an incredibly humbling, stimulating and international experience shared with equally incredible people – even if you feel like detoxing for a week afterwards and wanting to throttle the next person to make an MUN-related pun.