The year is 1984—about 15 years before today's UMass Lowell students were even born.
The space shuttle Discovery has just returned to Earth after its first flight; crack cocaine is spreading through American cities; Satanic panic grips the heartland; and scientists have discovered the cause of a mysterious new disease, AIDS.
The Marines have withdrawn from Beirut and Islamic Jihad has kidnapped the CIA station chief. The Cold War is ice cold. In a few weeks, President Reagan will win re-election in a landslide.
Fall 1984 is also when an envelope arrives at the Department of History in Coburn Hall. It is from Harvard, and Kathleen Curtin—a junior from Chelmsford, working part time as a secretary—opens it.
It's a generic invitation to a Model United Nations conference in Boston. Will UMass Lowell send a team?
Curtin might have filed the letter or thrown it away. But she liked the idea of researching other countries and pretending to represent them. She took it to History Prof. Dean Bergeron in the basement office he shared with Political Science Prof. Joyce Denning, a space affectionately called "The Clubhouse" by the politically minded students who hung out there.
Bergeron agreed to advise a delegation. On that small moment, a little piece of UMass Lowell's history turned.
At Harvard's conference, the kids from the Clubhouse represented Bulgaria, a nation they had researched furiously while also committing themselves to learn parliamentary procedure and debate.
They didn't win anything. But they had started something.
With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that Model U.N. is one of the university's great success stories. We're talking about countless awards and careers—illustrious ones— launched in the fields of politics, diplomacy, security and media.
Everyone has heard of Corey Lewandowski '95, the polarizing figure who successfully piloted the Trump campaign through the 2016 primaries. He cut his teeth representing Morocco for Model U.N., then working for U.S. Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire.
Others, like counterterrorism expert Roger Cressey '87, may not be household names, but they have gone on to distinguished careers. He was in the White House situation room on Sept. 11, 2001, advising the Bush administration on how to respond.
Other UMass Lowell Model U.N. alumni have landed in the State Department, the Pentagon and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
LEARNING BY DOING
From the beginning, Model U.N. was the ultimate immersive experience.
Bergeron turned it into a class and piled on the reading—both before and after students could do research online. He was an early adopter of experiential learning techniques, such as videotaping the students giving speeches so they could analyze and correct their stutters and tics. Often, Bergeron would throw out a sticky question, then sit back and watch as the students wrestled with it. Weekends were devoted to practice sessions and role-playing.
"Former students, like Cheryl Henry '96, say the skills they developed have propelled their careers.
"Most importantly, I learned public speaking, negotiation and problem solving," says Henry, president and COO of Ruth's Hospitality Group, which has more than 150 Ruth's Chris Steak Houses around the world. "I remember to this day the first time I had to stand up in a meeting in Washington, D.C., and defend my position in a ballroom filled with students from all over the world."
But Bergeron also taught students to fully consider other perspectives, says Brian Kenny '87, another in that first group of eight Model U.N. students.
At Bergeron's urging, for example, the team applied to represent Libya at Model Arab League in 1987, around the time dictator Muammar Khadafy was accused of sponsoring a terrorist attack in a Berlin disco that killed two U.S. soldiers.
"Libya was public enemy No. 1, and we had to set our emotions aside as Americans," says Kenny, now head of marketing and communications at Harvard Business School. "Every job where you're engaging with other people has an aspect of diplomacy and negotiation to it, and negotiation is all about understanding what motivates the other party."
BEGINNING OF A DYNASTY
The Libyan delegation won Best Team at Model Arab League in 1987. They had won the same award the year before as Iraq. They would win again a year later. And the year after that.
"We were a dynasty," says Paul Geary '91, a former radio talk-show host and campaign manager for Republican candidates who now works in business news and information.
As the Model U.N. and its affiliated student group, the International Relations Club, grew, so did the competition schedule. Lowell began sending its team to New York City— for Model U.N. at the real United Nations.
"I ended up with all these good students who went on to win awards, and the more awards that they won, the more recognition they got at the university," says Bergeron, now retired.
Chancellor Jacquie Moloney '75, '92 was a fan of Model U.N. from its early days, when she was teaching at UML and working toward her doctorate. She interviewed Bergeron for her dissertation and advocated for his promotion to full professor based on his outstanding teaching.
Indeed, students adored him. Cressey tells a story about how he was planning to transfer to UMass Amherst because he hadn't seen students going from UMass Lowell into the foreign service. "When I told Dean that, he said something like, ‘Well, Roger, if you stay here there are a lot of fun things we could do together.'" And they did.
WITNESSING AND MAKING HISTORY
Cressey became the first university graduate to win a coveted presidential management internship, going to work at the State Department. Hot on his heels was Todd Masse '88, who worked at the Congressional Research Service and now serves on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Cressey spent his two-year internship rotating through different State Department bureaus, including the U.S. embassy in Israel. He went on to work in the foreign service for several years, including stints as a political adviser to the U.N. peacekeeping missions in Somalia and the Balkans. Much of the work already seemed familiar. "In the mid-'90s I was a delegate to the multilateral track of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and I laughed to myself because I was using some of the same skills I developed in the model leagues," he says.
Cressey invited Bergeron and the IRC students to visit him when they were in Washington to compete in the Model Arab League. Don Leonard '02, '04 remembers getting a briefing from Cressey shortly after the latter joined the National Security Council, right around the time of the U.S.S. Cole bombing,
"For a bunch of working-class kids, it was absolute nerd-candy to be given a security pass to get into the old Executive Office Building to meet with someone on the National Security Council," Leonard says.
Altogether, the IRC and Model U.N. graduated four presidential interns. But Bergeron wasn't satisfied, Leonard recalls. "Dean decided that for UMass Lowell students to compete with the Ivy Leagues, we should have more internship opportunities in Washington," Leonard says. So Bergeron started the university's partnership with The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars. Now 15 to 25 students each year go to Washington for a semester or a summer and intern for politicians, government agencies and nonprofits, while taking classes.
Bergeron also helped start the graduate program in regional economic and social development, which is now the policy track of the Peace and Conflict Studies master's program.
A COACHING TREE
The students Bergeron mentored became mentors themselves, spreading Model U.N. into high schools and middle schools.
Jana Brown '91, '93 launched a Model U.N. team and International Relations Club at Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School, where she teaches social studies. Zachary Simmons '99, '00 called her for advice when he was starting a club at Haverhill High School, where he teaches history.
When he mentioned that Bergeron had told him to call her, they got to trading stories. "Immediately, I knew we were in the same cult," Simmons says.
Brown and Simmons took turns hosting each other for conferences. Then other schools in the region asked to join. Soon, Haverhill High's Model U.N. became so popular, it hosted large regional events at Northern Essex Community College.
When UMass Lowell's IRC decided to launch a high school Model U.N. 13 years ago, Bergeron and his successors—political science Assoc. Prof. Ardeth Thawngmung and Jason Carter, a teaching assistant turned adjunct—sought Brown's and Simmons' advice. Today, a dozen high schools annually bring a combined 200 students to the university for three days of intense discussion and debate. And Simmons and Brown get the pleasure of watching their former students run UML's high school Model U.N.
"My former student Pasquale Zarro was the secretary general this year, and Zach's student, Alejandro Lopez, is secretary general this coming year," Brown says.
Lopez '18 started Model U.N. at Haverhill High as a junior— and enjoyed it so much that during his senior year, he started Model U.N. programs at three Haverhill middle schools. He chose UMass Lowell over UMass Amherst mostly because of our Model U.N. team's strong reputation.
The senior economics major now enjoys watching his former middle school protégés perform at the university's high school Model U.N. each spring. "Some of the delegates I helped train while I was in high school come to the conference here and do well and win awards," he says. "It's really satisfying."
Carter went into teaching largely because he was Bergeron's teaching assistant. He is honored to walk in Bergeron's footsteps. "Dean became way more than a teacher, way more than a mentor, way more than a friend, because he was all three of those things wrapped into one," he says.
People in business like to talk about "coaching trees," Kenny says. "I bet the Dean Bergeron-Model U.N. tree is very impressive."
Brown agrees: "It's cool how much it's spread, all because of one person: Dean taught us, and we taught them, and it just keeps going."
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
Today, the year is 2017—a full generation after Model U.N. began at UMass Lowell.
The space shuttles are in museums, and private companies are launching rockets into space. The opioid epidemic is ravaging American communities. A new virus, Zika, is poorly understood. Islamic Jihad has given way to al-Qaida and ISIS. Russia has allegedly meddled in a U.S. presidential election and expelled most of the U.S. diplomatic corps.
Meanwhile, the IRC's "model leagues" program is thriving. Students have more opportunities than ever before. They compete at Model Arab League at Northeastern University each fall—last year as Iraq, once again—and travel to an international Model U.N. each spring. They've debated Scottish independence and Brexit in Scotland and human trafficking and the refugee crisis in Belgium.
For many students, it's their first visit to another country. That's a real eye-opener, Lopez says, since even in Englishspeaking countries like Scotland, social norms and political opinions are very different. "It's not just the Model U.N. that's appealing," he says. "It's the ability to expose yourself to a new culture, experience culture shock and see your own country from another point of view."
The students no longer need to fundraise aggressively to travel, thanks in large part to Denning and Bergeron, who in 1995 established the Denberg Scholarship Fund. After Denning died three years ago, leaving most of her money to Bergeron, he expanded that to the Dean Bergeron and Joyce Denning Endowment Fund, which not only supports the IRC and Model U.N., but also provides scholarships and grants to individual students majoring in history and political science.
It's a different time than 1984. But the world still needs leaders. And UMass Lowell is still making them.