Thirty-four students all dressed in their business best are crammed into a small classroom on the campus of the John F. Kennedy School in Berlin, Germany. It is mid-November 2018, and outside, Berlin is in the grip of a wet autumn with yellow and orange leaves decorating the slim birch trees surrounded by clumps of bicycles. Inside, the desks are utilitarian, the walls are peach-colored plaster over concrete, and the lights are fluorescent. This is the room where the Security Council of the Berlin MUN Conference (better known as BERMUN) is meeting, and negotiations are in full swing.
Delegates from each country are walking around to pitch their clauses and resolutions on the situation in the South China Sea to each other. A delegate from the UK requests that France take a look at the proposed clause in Google Docs on her laptop and type the country name if in agreement. A young man representing Kazakhstan in a bowtie and cufflinks pessimistically wonders aloud if anyone knew what China was up to this time. A representative from the Russian Federation asks in a heavy British drawl if the representatives of Equatorial Guinea needed their backup on any clause.
Suddenly, there are a few loud raps on the door and all the heads in the room turn around to focus on the intruder, a young man wearing pink and purple shorts and a horse’s head mask. He loudly asks for the representatives of China and delivers to the two bemused students a pizza in a cardboard box, “courtesy of President Trump.” When he cheerfully exits the room, students break out in laughter.
What is Model UN?
This is a glimpse into Model United Nations, better known as Model UN. “At a MUN conference, you participate in debate in different committees, from environmental to human rights to international security. Before attending, you write up resolutions, and during the committee session, you lobby for those resolutions together in allied groups or blocs of countries. Resolutions only pass by consensus, which means the majority agree on it, which means there ends up being constructive debate,” explains Si Yun E. ’19. “MUN is all about: how can we change things so that we can all agree to it?”
For thirty-five years, students at TAS have taken part in this simulation of the UN, which has kept its enduring appeal because it changes with the times. “Model UN is a fine blend between current events, drama, and public speaking, and current events doesn’t necessarily mean politics or social science or economics. It can be climate change, science, putting people in space, how to resolve global poverty, not just about Taiwan or the US improving,” reflects Angela Pan ’93, who participated for three years. “It’s important for students to graduate from TAS with a perspective beyond their own home.” In keeping with that global perspective, TAS students now travel locally and internationally to participate in MUN, visiting Berlin, Qatar, Singapore, Taichung, The Hague, and everywhere in between.
In the 1983 TAS yearbook, there is a black and white photo of the first World Councils Club whose faculty advisor was Mr. John Dankowski. Mr. Dankowski had taught at TAS before working at the United Nations for two years. After returning to TAS, he combined his experience at the UN and his social studies classes. “I had heard about Model UN clubs, but I had never seen one. This really emanated from my own work experience at the UN,” Mr. Dankowski explains. “When we first did it as a classroom activity, the kids took it so seriously that after class on Senior Island, they carried it on arguing in person with each other.”
Beginning in 1984, EARCOS held yearly regional Model UN conferences in Manila, Singapore, and Bangkok, which proved to be very popular and were eventually formalized into an IASAS event. “The EARCOS events were done very well, and they were so much fun because the kids were really into it and took their roles seriously,” comments Mr. Dankowski. “Students loved it and wanted to do it several years in a row. We had a real difficulty choosing the students. The kids would have to make speeches in front of a selection committee of teachers, and we voted on who could come.”
One of those students was Holger Baeuerle ’86, who joined because he wanted to study international relations at university. “At that time, it was the Cold War, so a lot of topics involved the Soviet Union and its role at the UN,” Holger recalls. “I remember representing the USSR either in Manila or Singapore and having to justify the various conflicts around the world the Soviet Union was involved in. It taught me to look at all points of view, even those you do not agree with.”
Negotiation, Diplomacy, Drama, and More
Model UN engages participants at many different levels, appealing to a wide range of students. Angela Pan enjoyed it because “It’s a multi-step game. You might plan something out, and then someone on stage in plenary session says something different, and then you give tit-for-tat. Here, you’re responsible for what you say and there are consequences.” Heejo Kang ’14 also sees the complexity behind the negotiations: “MUN is not meant to be about winning or losing; it's not a zero-sum game. Rather, MUN trains students with an eye for common ground strewn with differences and obstacles, and it's meant to challenge and push those involved to arrive at the best possible common solution to a shared problem.”
Preparing for those negotiations and compromises requires research and careful thinking. “I had opportunities to represent many countries and organizations, and it took a great deal of research to make sure I wasn't misrepresenting a country or miscalculating my stance,” remembers Kathy Chang ’01. “It meant that I spent a lot of time forming my own opinions on questions asked in committees, ranging from religious freedom to nuclear missile capability. Being able to think in someone else's shoes — in fact, a whole government's and those of the people it represents — is a very valuable skill I learned from MUN.”
TAS faculty also saw Model UN as an excellent pedagogical tool. Mr. Jim Soja taught at TAS for nearly three decades and credits MUN for helping students develop confidence in public speaking, sound research and writing skills, learn the value of listening and compromising, and much more. “It certainly promotes at the individual and group level the very TAS values of honesty, respect, responsibility, courage and kindness. These are universal values regardless of the specific TAS demographic.”
Students also recognized the real-world implications of participating in Model UN. “During my senior year, it was very interesting to be Secretary General at a time when Taiwan was not recognized by the UN, which is still the case,” recalls Kathy Chang. “For our speaker in 2001, we had the Taiwanese Vice President Annette Lu, whom I personally admired a lot. For me, participating in Model UN is connected to the Taiwanese struggle for recognition.”
Last but not least, it gave a chance for many students to show their dramatic flair. In Model UN, Clifton Yin ’03 found his calling: representing controversial countries, including China, Cuba, and Israel. “Being Israel is very tough, because every year, Palestine wants a vote instead of just being an observer,” Clifton remarks. “No matter who they are, you really have to embody that country and that country’s interests.” Angela Pan agrees, remembering, “The creativity that came out in MUN was phenomenal. The drama was not to be underrated. One year, I remember Palestine and the Vatican both came in full regalia outfits, mimicking distinguished world leaders.”
A Path After TAS
For some alumni, their MUN experience marked the beginning of a career in international relations and government. Clifton Yin went on to work in the California legislature and eventually earned his Master of Public Policy at Georgetown. Today, Clifton works as a government consultant supporting the U.S. Energy Department and working on industrial efficiency. “Model UN helped me get started in diplomacy and managing personalities,” says Clifton. "In my job as a consultant or contractor, you’re the middleman between different government point people, going between different offices, workers, and agencies. Frankly, it’s always compromise and negotiation and problem solving.”
For other alumni, their paths after Model UN did not lead them to work in international relations or politics, but they carried with them to university the passions and skills that they cultivated through Model UN. “Model UN and participating in IASAS, those things taught me to get out of my comfort zone and meet different people. When I went to Harvard, I appreciated being able to start random conversations with people,” says Angela Pan. After graduating from Penn, Kathy Chang pursued a career in finance and investing, and then attended business school. She recently moved from working at Twitter to Stripe, a technology and finance company, where she works in product management. “MUN taught me that it’s a lot harder to come up with ideas than it is to tear them down,” reflects Kathy. “It’s always easy to say this proposal doesn’t make sense, because everything will have holes. But I would encourage students to think about how they can create proposals and build coalitions to solve issues. That’s a skill set that is important in my role now as a product manager to come up with things people like and will solve their needs. Every product has flaws and issues, but I have to be confident enough to say that we’re not perfect but we’re moving forward no matter what.”
Holger Baeuerle went on to study economics and earn an MBA and also credits MUN with helping him get out of his introvert shell. “Having to speak in front of a crowd is a humbling experience but an invaluable experience at any age,” Holger remarks. “I still do not enjoy giving speeches but the MUN helped me overcome some of those inhibitions early on.”
What also endures for many alumni is a global network of friends made through Model UN and IASAS. “My best friend, who went to ISM, told me to apply to Harvard. We made so many friendships that we kept up through pen pals, gift exchanges during Christmas,” recalls Angela. Kathy concurs, “In college, people would come up to me and tell me that they graduated from ASIJ and that they remember me from being in MUN together. So it was really neat to me that there was this diaspora of MUN alumni.”
MUN for the 21st Century
In April 2019, the school will hold the 10th Annual TASMUN Conference, which is a junior-level conference aimed at Grades 7 to 10 students. Upper School faculty and MUN Coordinator Mrs. Darby Sinclair created TASMUN in 2009 with fellow faculty member Mrs. Kristen Rowe. “We started TASMUN to give younger students in Taiwan a chance to develop the skills around MUN and also to give our upper school students experience in leadership roles like committee chairs and the Secretariat.” This year, the rigor and quality of the TASMUN Conference have drawn a crowd of 26 schools and 600 participants. Mrs. Sinclair uses this as an opportunity to bring in unique guest speakers which have included students from Afghanistan, a youth activist from Palestine, and a Rwandan genocide survivor. This year, TASMUN will welcome a paraplegic North Korean refugee as its keynote speaker.
Si Yun E. is one of the students who have responded to Mrs. Sinclair’s approach. “I started participating in MUN since Grade 6,” remembers Si Yun. “I was very shy, but I really loved politics and int’l relations. If I wanted to learn more about those fields, it required me to be able and willing to speak publicly, so I went ahead and decided I had to conquer this fear, otherwise I couldn’t do what I wanted to.” In 2018, Si Yun served as the Secretary-General for the 9th annual TASMUN Conference and anticipates attending a total of 21 conferences before she graduates in May 2019.
About 10-15% of upper school students participate in Model UN, but as TAS moves toward its fourth decade in Model UN, the program seeks to grow in impact and not simply numbers. “MUN students are eager to use their communications skills and knowledge to create an impact on the world, especially by helping to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals,” Mrs. Sinclair observes. “How do we support students in engaging with those goals on a greater level as they move through TAS and enter university?” While the problems of the 21st century may be daunting, Model UN is giving students the skills and opportunity to grapple with them from an early age. To sum up the impact of Model UN, Heejo Kang reflects, “It equips us with the understanding, and with it, a sense of responsibility, that no problem is isolated and that the world is smaller than it may seem.”