By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
The occasion will be the 2016-2017 Model United Nations, a conference that annually draws thousands of potential future diplomats who will address a number of world problems in what could be called an exercise in mock-catastrophe control.
On Feb. 22, a gathering of perhaps 50 RFHS students and their parents sat down in the school’s library to hear social studies teacher Matt Wells go over the program, which is in its third year at RFHS (though Wells was involved in similar field trips while teaching in the Aspen schools.)
“Our goal here is to help students have a better understanding of the world,” Wells informed the assembled parents and young adults.
He explained that, during the week the students spend in New York, they will be split off into different assignments doled out by college-age, former Model UN participants now acting as moderators and chairs of the committees.
Of the RFHS contingent, Wells said: 19 of them will be “representing” the interests of Botswana (a republic in southern Africa) while working on 11 different mock committees; two will “represent” the tiny nation of Kuwait as “members” of the League of Arab States; two will “represent” Egypt’s positions on a simulated UN Security Council; and one will be acting as a justice on the International Court of Justice.
The five-day excursion, during which the young diplomats will stay at the New York Hilton Midtown hotel, will include mornings filled with sightseeing at such internationally renowned facilities as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the startlingly green expanse of Central Park.
On an organizational note, Wells told his audience at RFHS that the trip is costing each participant a little more than $1,000, and asked for parent participation in everything from paying the costs to providing rides to and from Denver International Airport, on March 8 (the day before the flight leaves) and March 13 (the day the students fly back).
Wells pointed out that the students have been engaged in fundraising efforts all year, starting with a booth at last summer’s Mountain Fair, but emphasized that more financial support is needed to cover all the costs.
Anyone interested in helping out, Wells said, can do so by visiting the gofundme.com/rfhs-un page and adding their donation to the $1,670 raised so far (the goal is $5,000). As a visual encouragement, the page sports a photo of a past RFHS Model UN team posing in Times Square at night.
Wells said the total cost of the trip is in the $25,000 range, and that the kids and parents already have paid their share and the trip has been booked. The ongoing fundraising, he said, is merely a way to lower the costs per family as much as possible.
Learning how the world works
The students will be there to learn how the world works, at least as viewed through the lens of international diplomacy, though some admitted that the fun of it all was the first point of attraction.
“I wanted to go to New York,” conceded Camilla Wikum, an exchange student from Norway with an infectious grin.
After signing up, however, Wikum (a junior) said she became truly interested in the program as much as the trip.
“It’s about, like, it’s a model of how we can solve the world’s problems. We get delivered a country each, each school, and we’re going to represent their (the country’s) interests at the Model UN,” she explained.
She and her partner in diplomacy, Sophie Hofmann of Germany (another junior-year exchange student), will be dealing with issues as though they were representing Botswana, just as other students will be working from the points of view of other nations.
“It’s a way that we can get together with other like-minded people who are interested in similar things,” added Solana Teitler, a sophomore, “and we can see how to solve real-world problems … and things that affect our world.”
Among the issues to be covered are nuclear disarmament (through the International Atomic Energy Agency); LGBTQ rights in southeast Asia; mitigating the global impact of crop toxicity; defending the religious rights of minorities by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL); human resettlement due to the effect of global warming on coastal cities; and the legal status of cyber warfare in international law, as described in a list of close to 30 topics.
Aidan Knaus, a sophomore, told The Sopris Sun that his team representing Botswana has been doing research on two topics – wildlife poaching in national parks and other locales, and maintaining press freedom in local communities – although he was unsure which of the two would actually be the subject of debate at the Model UN.
This will be his first Model UN experience, he said, though he expects to go again in the future to gain experience.
“I’m not actually that great a public speaker,” he remarked, “so it’ll help with that.”
Tavia Teitler, a senior, said she would be acting as a judge on the International Court of Justice, which will be looking into such issues as the ongoing dispute over the Indus River among India, Pakistan and Kashmir; and the legal status of cyber warfare in international law.
Wells, in his remarks at the Feb. 22 meeting, said the students will have their mornings somewhat free for tourist activities, but their afternoons and nights (sometimes to nearly midnight) will be taken up by long committee meetings and late debates.
And the closing ceremonies of the conference, he said, will take place in the real U.N. General Assembly Hall, “so we get to sit right where the General Assembly meets” and where history often is made.
“They will be exhausted,” he predicted about the students in the aftermath of the trip. “But they also will be energized in a way that you probably have never seen before.”
Published in The Sopris Sun on March 2, 2017.