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Around the world in 50 years: Where the nerds become the rockstars

February 14, 2013


“I remember standing there—and you’re barely standing because you’ve slept seven hours in two weeks and you don’t know if you failed half your midterms. You can literally feel the energy of these 20 people who you’ve been working with for a year to create a conference,” said Ishita Kohli (SFS ’13). “Standing in front of 3,000 people trying to explain how much you love what you do … I definitely had that perfect sense of fulfillment that I had ownership over an extremely amazing endeavor.”

Kohli is one of many Georgetown students who have served as senior staff members for the North American Invitational Model United Nations, the largest student-led high school Model United Nations conference in the world. Not only do students from 21 states attend, but it also has international draw, with delegates making the trip from 19 different countries.

Organized by the Georgetown International Relations Association, the four-day conference allows high school students to engage in debate and dialogue about current affairs with guidance from members of the Georgetown International Relations Club.

NAIMUN, Ivy League Model United Nations Conference, and the Harvard Model United Nations, the three largest high school conferences, are held in January and February, with NAIMUN wrapping up the MUN season this weekend. MUN conferences are simulations of the various committees within the United Nations, such as the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. Students are encouraged to accurately role-play the countries they are assigned, requiring both extensive research and the development of negotiation skills. NAIMUN was established in 1963, but unfortunately, records previous to the 46th conference have been lost—nonetheless, students continue to uphold and improve upon the MUN traditions.

This weekend, NAIMUN will celebrate its 50th anniversary.The milestone conference will include a few special elements. “We have a heavy 1963 theme, which was the first year NAIMUN was founded,” said Secretary-General Theresa Lou (SFS ‘14). “We have a present-day U.N. Security Council and we also have a 1963 U.N. Security Council. It makes delegates think about where we’ve been, and how we’ve gotten where we are.”

For this anniversary conference, there will be 38 committees comprised of 12 to 320 delegates. “We hit full capacity this year in September, which is earlier than ever before,” said Executive Director Cody Cowan (SFS ‘14). “We broke 2,000 delegates in August.”

The IRC and GIRA are two distinct organizations separate from the University. “GIRA is a nonprofit organization, technically not affiliated with Georgetown at all,” said Kohli, now GIRA Director of Marketing and Public Affairs [full disclosure: Kohli is a former Voice staffer]. “It’s our overarching corporation, which we run both of the [MUN] conferences through, so we have full ownership of it. IRC provides the volunteer talent of the people who staff these conferences.” The IRC is a University-affiliated group.

Regarding University involvement with GIRA and its conferences, various staffers described a positive, symbiotic relationship between GIRA and the University.

This year’s Director General Luke Young (MSB ‘15) decided to attend Georgetown after winning a scholarship in his fourth year attending the conference. GIRA gives a $1,000 scholarship to a student who writes a compelling essay about his or her passion for MUN. Regarding his scholarship, Young said, “I was happy to reach out to [NAIMUN] and say … ‘You can just send it over to the registration office because I’m coming to Georgetown.’”

NAIMUN Chief of Staff Thomas Larson (SFS ‘13) also credits his matriculation at Georgetown to his contact with the conference. “It’s the best thing Georgetown students put together, in my opinion,” Larson said. “We make the Hilton that weekend feel like the center of the universe for those kids. They feel like they have the entire world at their fingertips, and they kind of do. That’s the weekend where the kids who are passionate and care about international affairs, the speakers, the politicians—the nerds become the rock stars. It’s cool to care at NAIMUN.”

Larson noted that despite staff members obtaining letters excusing absences from the IRC’s faculty representative, professors are often concerned with the amount of class students miss in order to participate in NAIMUN. “Some professors do have a problem with it,” Larson said. “The main reason I discourage [going to class] is not because a missing staffer for an hour can really drag down a committee…[it] is because one of the best parts about NAIMUN is that you can get sucked into that world we call the ‘NAIMUN bubble.’”

This dedication is a facet Larson deeply values about the conference. “There’s something very beautiful about that because in college, all of us feel pulled in six different directions—you have to worry about your career, your internship, your parents, your friends, your classes, your extracurriculars—and it’s important to multitask,” he said. “But at this conference, if you can let your entire consciousness settle on it. It’s just a great experience.”

“Being at Georgetown, we have such an excellence in substantive knowledge,” said Lou. “We are able to produce something that is unparalleled on the circuit, whether that is through crisis simulations, or just the way we guide them through their thought process. Seeing the conference planning … selecting topics for committees, getting chairs to write background guides for their delegates on time … it’s an experience like no other.  ”

Lou sees her leadership role as a way to give back to MUN, which she attributes as the reason for her acceptance to Georgetown. “MUN has given me so much that I feel further inspired to want to give back to the 3,000 high school kids that I can help shape, help inspire,” Lou said. “It’s obviously not an individual effort, but being able to spearhead such a movement where delegates can make a change, no matter how much time I give up, it’s worth it.”

Anupam Chakravarty (SFS ’10), who led NAIMUN XLVI, claims the conference shaped his leadership skills. “At 19 or 20, you’re not used to being able to build an institution,” Chakravarty said. “At Georgetown, as we’ve seen time and time again, whether it be Corp or GUASFCU, Hoyas get to build things; truly get to start from scratch and envision things in a new way.”

During his time as Secretary-General of NAIMUN XLVI, Chakravarty was responsible for implementing three essential elements of the conference. To begin with, his staff emphasized the idea of NAIMUN staff as a family. Second, Chakravarty said, “We added this really heavy Georgetown element we borrowed from other conferences, who would [invite] a cappella performances, to create Hilltop Madness. Even though we are not directly affiliated with Georgetown, we have Georgetown all over our programming.” Finally, his staff emphasized their model, “think globally, act locally”, by introducing a community service project into the conference’s program.

Cowan sacrificed studying abroad to help lead this conference. “I finally decided that passing up the opportunity was not worth it because there are few times in your life where you will be able to be a part of a family like NAIMUN’s,” Cowan said.

While there is a sense of community within the IRC, there is also a sense of competition. “We by nature are a competitive team,” said Kohli, “but I don’t think that’s native to the IRC. I think Georgetown is an extremely competitive, ambitious university … IRC is unique in that it has a lot of avenues for leadership. There’s a lot of different ways to be intense.”

Within the IRC, tensions can arise through working long hours on conferences, particularly NAIMUN. “One of the hardest parts can be once you get in the trenches with your friends,” said Larson, “You get to a point where there’s actually a challenge in front of you both and somebody has a different way to approach it than the other does and you actually do have to deal with real conflict of ideas … that can be a challenge to separate that from everything else and find a logical way through it.”

However, he notes the success of NAIMUN is due to the successful navigation of such a divergence of opinions. ”I think part of the evidence we do such a good job of it is that no one notices it,” said Larson. “That disharmony comes into this collective whole that seems pretty seamless.

Larson isn’t the only one who has noticed NAIMUN’s streamlined planning—it has been consistently ranked as the most competitive conference on the high school MUN circuit.

Kohli attributes the conference’s success to its appeal to every type of delegate, as well as the consistency of having strong Georgetown leaders. “The impression that we’ve left in terms of the circuit is that no matter what happens, you’ll always have a substantially strong conference,” she said. “We’re very lucky that we go to a school where people are so interested in politics and government and security and crisis, so we will always be a great feeder school for something like MUN.”

That dedication keeps the conference going even during the most trying times. “We ran this conference in Snowpocalypse, three years ago, where you started day one with 33 percent [of the attendees] and ended still making tens of thousands of dollars in philanthropy money,” Kohli said. “It still was an amazing conference. It amounts to dedication, and it amounts to we know what we’re doing.”

Young, who also helps coordinate feature articles for BestDelegate, a website devoted to MUN conferences, emphasized the scope of Georgetown’s MUN program. “Georgetown has a stellar reputation pretty much everywhere,” he said. “On the high school circuit, we’re probably thought of as the best, or one of the best, conferences.”

GIRA also organizes another conference for college students, the National Collegiate Security Conference. Young described the program: “We specialize in small committees moving at a very quick pace with moving elements such as crises that delegates have to respond to. That’s sort of our niche on the college circuit … we’re seen as one of the most challenging conferences.”

Though proud of the program’s success, Larson sees the competitive nature of MUN as potentially detrimental. “The competition aspect is something I’m hoping that MUN in general gets away from,” he said. “At the end of the day, if MUN is competitive, it loses what it’s meant to be … It’s not a competition as much as it is an educational and cultural activity with a competitive element.”

Aside from logistical excellence, Larson stressed other components crucial in NAIMUN’s continued success. “We’re good at creating a great out-of-committee experience with a dance and Hilltop Madness, and we really do give delegates a lot of opportunities to explore D.C.,” she said. “But I think what makes us number one is that we have the bigger picture in mind when we craft this whole conference, and that’s what MUN is supposed to be and what role it’s supposed to play in education in high school.”

While the BestDelegate website notes excellence in both the competition and entertainment aspects of NAIMUN, Larson says there are certain factors that are ignored. “This wouldn’t be something outside rankers would recognize, [but] we really do keep the ideals of MUN itself at heart,” he said. “I think some of that has to come from our Jesuit background, in that we’re dedicated to justice and things like that.

Beyond organizing NAIMUN, the Georgetown IRC is dominant in college-level MUN as well. The IRC’s traveling conference team is currently ranked first in the country, according to BestDelegate. Unlike at other schools, IRC members must reapply to go to every conference. Led by Dane Shikman (SFS ‘13), the team has consistently won Best Delegation and Outstanding Delegation, as well as Best and Outstanding delegates, at conferences such as McGill Model United Nations in Montreal, University of Pennsylvania Model United Nations Conference, Boston Area Model United Nations, and the Security Council Simulation at Yale. Additionally, the team is attending Harvard’s WORLDMUN in Melbourne, Australia for the first time this year.

But Georgetown is known not only for winning. It’s also known for how it wins.

“Part of the reason we do so well is because we continue to do this activity for the love of it rather than for the glory we get,” Larson said. “That’s kind of a bonus, or an affirmation of what we’re doing, but our ultimate goal is not to go dominate everyone at a competition, it’s to learn and to get better at these skills. And I think because we focus on the right things, we remain successful.”

Through the years, the Georgetown team has developed a friendship with the University of Pennsylvania’s MUN squad. University of Pennsylvania student Yadavan Mahendraraj, Secretary-General of the Ivy League Model United Nations Conference, has experienced Georgetown’s planning expertise himself.

“Funnily enough, my first conference ever freshman year was NAIMUN,” said Mahendraraj. “I can say this because we didn’t go to ILMUNC at my high school, NAIMUN was by far the best conference we went to. I still have a lot of respect for NAIMUN.”

Though the University of Pennsylvania’s International Affairs Association is very similar to Georgetown’s IRC, Mahendraraj notes one main difference. “The presence of the SFS at Georgetown lets them do something that’s different to us in that they turn away staff members [who apply],” he said. “They try out for their team, and [at Penn] as soon as you staff our conferences you’re allowed to go on a trip. We take everyone and have a larger staff. It’s an interesting difference.”

Mahendraraj describes both universities as ones that push innovation rather than adapt to the circuit. “As the largest conferences, we have an outside effect on how the world perceives MUN. If we do it, or if NAIMUN does it, it’s almost accepted or it becomes mainstream pretty fast,” he said.

NAIMUN’s 50th conference is a testament to the dedication the staffers have put into the extensive process of planning the conference year after year—the spirit of service permeates the attitudes of NAIMUN staffers. “The reason I love NAIMUN is because of what it gives back to high school students,” said Executive Assistant Jennifer Zink (SFS ‘15), whose immersion in NAIMUN and IRC occurred early on in her Georgetown career.

No matter what the future holds, Chakravarty says he’s confident it will continue to educate and inspire politically-minded high schoolers for ages to come.

“NAIMUN has consistently put Georgetown out there to the world and made us part of a really important conversation about youth empowerment,” he said. “I’m so glad to see that continues to grow stronger and stronger every year.”

Editor’s Note: The Voice incorrectly identified the founding year of NAIMUN as 1953 instead of 1963. This, among other errors, has been corrected in the online version of the article.



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