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Deemphasizing Awards in Model UN: What really matters here?

Claire Tempelman

May 13th, 2020


Picture: the much-fabled Model UN power delegate.

Physical characteristics: Equipped with a power suit and a country pin. Hair slicked back, if male, or in perfect waves, if female. Montblanc pen and list of NGOs in hand.

Habitat: Can typically be found individually or in small groups on the campuses of wealthy prep schools. Gather in large groups for simulating international governments.

Behavior: Will do anything for an “award.”

Everyone in Model UN knows them. They saunter in and give a firm handshake. They deliver a passionate opening speech, starting with a single word and giving dramatic emphasis, and ending by describing their three-pronged, acronymed plan. They pass notes to everyone who gives a speech, and stand in front of the chair’s mic yelling “meet with South Korea in the front of the room!” They then proceed to grab as much power as they can, doing everything to ensure they’re the first named on the sponsor’s list. Finally, they “write” their resolution (often pre-written, which is against the rules) with their bloc, affirming it’s the one with the most meaningless details.

But why would someone be like this? Model UN is just an extracurricular activity where kids dress up in business attire and pretend to be ambassadors. Yet, there are always the delegates who will do anything to be the first sponsor, the chair’s pet, and to have the resolution that lists the most NGOs, even though doing so does nothing to create a meaningful solution or debate. Why do they act like this?

The awards. Every closing ceremony ends with them, and as the chairs line up to give them out, there’s an immediate stiffening up in the students in the room. Everyone wants an award, but the power delegates are the ones who hunt for them. Sure, maybe discussing maternal health in sub-Saharan Africa is somewhat important to them, but what really matters is the piece of paper they bring home. That piece of paper trumps everything else: the weekend they missed, the fact that everyone in their committee hated them, along with the fact that they totally didn’t deserve it. It means success -- at the conference, and amidst the school politics waiting for them back at home.

Maybe I should give an example. AMUNC 2017.

I was walking up the chilly ramp lining the East River to enter the Amber School, wearing my new suede boots, ripped tights, black skirt, blouse, and empowering blazer. I was truly excited because I was representing Germany, the most significant country I’d represented so far. The committee was called Disarmament and International Security (an actual committee in the United Nations), and the topic was control of illegal arms sales, and I was prepared. In my backpack was my detailed position paper (a paper in which I described Germany’s stance on the topic and potential solutions), a binder with loads of research, and a legal pad with my key talking points. Establishing public-private sector partnerships. Marking and monitoring target areas. Encouraging more gun control legislation and education around the world. I was ready.

Following a tense opening ceremony, I stepped into the even tenser library (where my committee was located), and students were already asking “Which topic do you want to vote for?” “What’s your stance?” “Oh my goodness, I would LOVE to work together. Send me a note, I’m planning to meet with people in the front-right corner of the room.” Ugh.

Luckily, the chairs (students who were heads of the committee) stepped in soon after and made everyone sit at their desks.

The first round of speeches passed. Nothing special so far. I was able to give a coherent speech about my solutions, and students were mostly attentive. But then Syria stepped up to the front of the room to give her speech.

“Death. Chaos. Destruction.”

She paused for dramatic effect. The other delegates stared back listlessly.

“Guns have RIPPED the face of Syria into the shadow of what it was years ago. So, Syria has come up with a 5-pronged plan, called the PEACE plan, to put an end to this crisis.”

The chair banged his gavel, signaling she should be wrapping up her speech. “Send me a note if you want to work together. I’ll be in the front left corner of the room.” She walked back to her seat, high heels making loud, confident clacks as she stomped. Syria was short, but she clearly didn’t want that to get in her way. I caught a view of her nametag, which listed that she was from the Johnson School.

Johnson is infamous in MUN. They’re the power delegate factory. If there was a power delegate brawl, it would be a Johnson student that would come out on top. Rumor has it that Johnson has Model UN as a class, rather than an afterschool club, and that the award they get is their final grade. They also frequently share awards with their sister schools, like the Wilson School, to ensure they all appear as the top schools in the award rankings.

A quieter delegate, representing Thailand, motioned for an unmod. An unmod, short for an unmoderated caucus, basically allows delegates to get up from their seats to start forming their blocs (groups they work with to write their resolution, which is the document detailing a solution to the issue being discussed). The first unmod is always the craziest -- it’s where everyone makes or joins a bloc and the bloc leaders are established. Power delegates are the most active in this part of committee.

I was able to gather a good amount of delegates in a circle at the back of the room and establish myself as a leader. When I was describing my ideas, people were paying attention. At the same time, delegates were pitching their own ideas without being aggressive.

I was quite hopeful. My bloc seemed calm, yet passionate, and if all went well, I could win an award at the end of committee. I was thrilled: as a sophomore, I had never truly had the opportunity to lead a bloc before, with a more senior delegate or power delegate always taking control first.

“Hey Germany, can you open up the circle?”

I’d failed to notice Syria had only managed to get two delegates to meet with her. My heart sank. I really didn’t want to be rude, but I also knew she could hijack my bloc. So, I tried to enlist a little power delegate pettiness.

“We’re starting our own plan that’s a little different from PEACE,” I said. A few delegates nodded.

“It’s okay! Our plans are so similar anyways. I have a sheet of paper, write your country and email and I’ll share you on the Google Doc so we can start writing our resolution.” Syria whipped a legal pad out of nowhere and started passing it around the circle, delegates awkwardly writing their emails.

“We should also start coming up with a list of topics and who would want to write each,” I tried.

Syria gave a wide, fake smile. “Let’s just talk about our ideas first. We didn’t hear from everyone yet.” She turned to the rest of the circle. “I know you like public-private partnerships, Germany, and you can write about that. What about you, Nigeria?” she said, turning to a quiet freshman, who mumbled something about a database.

Syria gave a satisfied smile the whole time Nigeria was talking. She didn’t actually care about what Nigeria had to say, she was just happy to know she’d won. Soon the unmod was over, and I slumped to my seat.

I tried to see if there were any other blocs I could join, but they were all led by power delegates of their own. One large bloc was led by the other Johnson delegate, and one smaller bloc was led by a delegate from my school; I couldn’t join that one because it was looked down upon for two delegates from the same school to work together.

As I sat back in my seat, it felt like the door was closed in my face. Again. I was supposed to have my moment where I led a bloc and carried my school’s team to glory. But this conference was a dud. I was out-powered by a Johnson girl. In any other setting, Syria and I could have been the best of friends, maybe even pioneer some actual solutions to this issue, but committee had such an inherent toxicity to it. We were not going to be friends, nor would we come up with a substantive plan.

At lunch, I was looking over the resolution. Then, I noticed a few strange things about it.

“Hey, these clauses were just pasted in,” I said around the circle of delegates of the bloc.

“Oh, it’s just a formatting thing,” Syria said, while conspicuously closing the Word document she had open.

“Also, the countries have to be listed in alphabetical order on the sponsor’s list (author’s list). They all are, except Syria is listed first.” I said.

“I don’t think there’s an actual rule for it, but if you want to get hung up on it, go ahead,” she said snarling. With a snappy clack on her laptop, Syria was moved in the right space.

After lunch was over and we returned to our seats, I quickly checked the resolution again, and Syria had moved her name back to the front again. I turned and looked at her busy writing a note. I quickly changed it back to the correct order. I sighed. As long as I was able to be the leader while presenting the resolution, it could all be okay. Of course, I checked the resolution 10 minutes later, and Syria had moved her name back yet again.

I sent a note to another member of our bloc. Syria keeps messing with the names list. Please back me up in telling her to stop.

He responded. Okay, I will. Is it just me, or is Syria acting weird?

I sighed, resisting the urge to respond No shoot, Sherlock, and wrote Yeah. I wish we had more time so we could actually work together. It’s unfair to everyone.

Syria said she would stop messing with the names, but of course she didn’t. When the chairs projected the Google Doc as we presented, she was listed as the first sponsor.

I tried to grasp the last chance I had at sticking out. “So-”

“-This resolution, the PEACE resolution…” Syria straight-up interrupted me. I gave an angry glare. A chair giggled.

Dealing with power delegates can feel like hitting your head on a tabletop. No matter how hard you try, the tabletop will never break, and you just end up with brain damage at the end. I was tired of hitting my head on tabletops at every conference I went to. I felt like a burden on the team.

In time, I would go on to win awards myself, and have more collaborative experiences at future conferences. But after that conference, I almost quit Model UN.

I started doing Model UN in middle school, coached under a man named Mr. Taylor. I remember the moment he broke the news to us about the awards.

Sixty-or-so eighth graders were squeezed in the biggest classroom in the school. We were getting ready to go to our first-ever conference. Mr. Taylor looked at us with a careful glance.

“Now, I didn’t tell you this, but there are awards given out at the end of the conference.”

Everyone was ooh-ing. Awards were making people excited.

“But I want you to keep in mind that that’s not what matters here.” Eighth graders started to decompress at the words of Mr. Taylor. Mr. Taylor whipped out a news article, “Portraits of Three Women in Congo” from Women’s Media Center.

“I’m here to tell you the story of Jeanne, a woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” Mr. Taylor went on to describe Jeanne, a woman who had been living with her family on a farm in the village of Bunia, when she was attacked by a group of militiamen. The DRC was embroiled in a civil war at the time, he said. Militia members raped Jeanne at home. And while she knew what group they were with, she withheld the group’s name for safety reasons. In any case, she didn’t know where the men had ended up there were no arrests. But the violence accompanies her every day of her life. “I’m wounded,” she says. “I’m in pain. I’m still suffering. It is very difficult to forget.” Jeanne is currently living in a house that belongs to the family of her first husband, who died from illness— is all she’ll say about him. And while she has a roof over her head, the reality she faces daily is that his family can kick her out at any moment. She says she is making a tiny amount of money by baking, but really has nothing at all. “I have no possibilities,”’ she says.

“This. This is what really matters,” Mr. Taylor finished. “No award could ever match this. Things like awards can make you forget that these topics, these issues, they are real.

We eighth graders took whatever came out of this middle-aged man as gospel. Mr. Taylor was someone everyone admired. Yet, at the end of our first conference, I heard Francis, a very outspoken member of our team, declare, “I think I’m going to win an award.” Something about shiny awards, and being special, better than everyone else, was enough to make us forget the words of our mentor.

As I sat with my friend Sophie, she said, “I mean, awards don’t matter, but it’s always nice to be recognized.”

My high school’s Model UN members, many of whom had been taught by Mr. Taylor, generally follow a similar policy. Awards aren’t supposed to be the primary purpose of MUN; learning and fun are supposed to be. That’s what Model UN was originally created to be, after all. Not a championship, but an educational exercise. When a student does Model UN, they’re supposed to learn about world issues and politics. MUN is basically simulating world governments. How nerdy is that? While some might feel differently, I genuinely enjoy pretending to be an ambassador for a day and learning about these different political issues.

Yet, especially with the chugging engine of college admissions and the overall pressure to achieve prestige hanging in the background, Model UN --  and I -- have been hacked by this culture of awards. Awards are the be-all and end-all. Awards determine your experience at a conference. No matter how much you learned, if you don’t come back home with an award, you’ll feel like a failure. Plus, with schools vying for Delegation Awards to flaunt, there’s more pressure than ever on students to prioritize performance over learning. Syria, and many of the other power delegates I’ve met over the years, aren’t the ones at fault, they’re just following what their own mentors taught them.

I didn’t quit MUN after AMUNC. But I did take a pause. The next conference I attended was SMUNC, my school’s own conference. This time, I was in the role of the chair.

I was chairing the committee of the Weimar Republic, made up of delegates representing historical figures trying to create the Weimar Constitution. Chloe, my co-chair, and I were so caught up in keeping the committee running (and having a lot of fun) that we almost forgot about choosing awards. We quickly opened the Google Form where we’d put our selections.

Chloe looked through our notes. “Hmmm, Dittman is really having a big impact in committee with his soccer arc. Muller is giving good speeches.”

“What about Preuss? He’s clearly speaking a lot,” I said.

“His notes are so ridiculous though,” Chloe noted.

“How about Pickering? She’s writing a lot of excellent directives.”

“Yeah, she’s a good pick for honorable. I say Dittman best, Muller outstanding, Pickering honorable.”

“I’m fine with that. Now let’s get back to this famine in Southern Germany.”

Two minutes. That was it. That’s what determined the awards.

I could see other good delegates who were clearly being snubbed. Naumann was speaking in nearly every moderated caucus (where delegates give speeches about a specific topic). Ebert clearly had many excellent ideas about solving Germany’s economic crisis. Yet, they didn’t win anything.

Awards are so meaningless, so unnecessary, but they do have a role. Truly great delegates, not just the “power delegates” hacking for awards, should have the opportunity to be recognized. Yet, just the fact that they’ve become so toxic so quickly makes me question the role of awards in Model UN. I’m sure that if they were gotten rid of, power delegates and unnecessary aggression and the petty battles over the order of names in the sponsor’s list would be extinct. Many former power delegates could flourish by using their speaking abilities to give more substantive speeches. Model UN would become more democratic as delegates have an incentive to let everyone be included, instead of having a team become an illusion. I love so many things about Model UN that I want to protect - the heated debates, the creative crises, the different things I learn, and the friends I’ve made on the team. And, at the end of the day, what really matters about Model UN is that it is a first step for students toward learning how to make a difference later on in their lives, helping people like Jeanne in the Congo. I wish delegates could pour their energy into these very real issues instead of into some cheap pieces of cardstock that mean nothing in the end. And the only way to do this is with institutional support. Conferences and schools should move toward abolishing or deemphasizing awards.

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