Chicago high school students learn about Model UN at UChicago conference

Brina Jones is a freshman at South Shore International College Prep High School, but the 14-year-old has already learned there's more than one way to solve a pandemic.

Jones was part of a recent gathering at UChicago’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, where 55 students from five South and West side high schools spent the day debating about, and attempting to resolve, some of the world's most pressing problems. 

“We frequently did a round robin, which gave everybody in the room a chance to say what their country thinks,” Jones said.

The inaugural Chicago-Hyde Park Model United Nations Conference (CHPMUNC) represents an expansion of Model United Nations efforts at the University.

“We’d known for the past year that we wanted to use our considerable manpower and resources to reach out to schools in the local community that didn't have Model UN programs,” said Gabriel Panek, a fourth-year who just finished his term as Secretary-General for UChicago's Model UN conference, which recently hosted 2,600 high school students at the Palmer House in February.

For CHPMUNC, 20 UChicago students worked with high schoolers over approximately three months to teach them about current affairs, public speaking, diplomacy and why all this matters. 

“These students have such a great love for politics and debating,” Panek said. “At the school I taught at, South Shore International, the kids would constantly try to turn things back around to ask about North Korea, having been fascinated by what they heard in the news. It was pretty amusing. I would pretend to get frustrated, but I was really quite excited that these students really wanted to know more about international affairs.”

Aidan Millif, a second-year studying political science, was impressed when a student from Young Women's Leadership Charter School took a different tack to nuclear proliferation from those of her peers. 

“She was asking, if we get a bomb, and Russia gets a bomb, and Israel probably gets a bomb, why doesn’t Iran? Who is looking out for them? Do we think we’re better people than they are?” Millif recounted. “Regardless of what people think about the situation with Iran, those kinds of questions aren’t asked a lot, and they’re challenging and they were asked by someone who was totally new to the topic. That was a really surprising and gratifying experience.”

Another Young Women's Leadership student, 16-year-old Sensahra Hearn, came by an important lesson from her experience. “I also learned that it’s OK to stand alone for what you believe in, because other people won’t,” she said.

Her battle was over how the Cote d'Ivoire should handle a potential revolution.  While none of the other countries agreed with her, the situation made her take a stronger stand because she focused on making her response the most logical.

Two 14-year-old freshmen from Hales Franciscan High School gained more than just factual information from the experience.

“I learned a new process of problem-solving,” said Daniel Contreras. “To be able to act as a delegate from Singapore and debate brought me knowledge and wisdom.”

“It was the best conference I ever attended,” said Dantryll Pearson. “I think I learned to understand differently. I met new people and discovered I had something to share."

South Shore International freshmen Felicia Wright and Joshua Jackson said that one of the greatest takeaways for them was an increased ability to see situations from others’ points of view.

An experience like CHPMUNC was important because it gave “them an open mind about the world and also a viewpoint on how other people feel,” said Wright.

“Not all countries are always thinking alike, and some people might think something is a good idea while another country can point out several holes in that opinion,” said Jackson. “With you showing your ideas on the subject you can hear feedback from your peers and be able to change your point of view from the critique.”