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Students Find Their Chops at Model U.N. Conference

First-Timer Wins ‘Best Delegate’ Award in Toronto

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International Relations Club members 'Bella' Jimenez and Edwyn Shoemaker celebrate their accomplishments at the Model U.N. Conference held in Toronto.

By Sandra Seitz

Join the Dean Bergeron International Relations Club (IRC) at UMass Lowell and it will change your life — starting with “Hell Week.”

“For one week in January, when other students are on break, you are on campus, in class from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” says senior political science major Beyazmin (Bella) Jimenez, describing the prep week for a Model U.N. Conference. “You learn how to debate, what the conference procedures are, how to represent a country. You’re bombarded with different topics and countries. Also, you’re videotaped and watch the playback to learn what’s effective.”

In Model United Nations or Model Arab League competitions, students represent various countries on simulated committees, participating in debates and using diplomatic skills to craft creative resolutions. The situations are realistic and the work is intense.

Jimenez, who studied abroad in Thailand for the 2012 spring semester, decided to make the commitment. The IRC is more than a club; it’s a course taught by political science Assoc. Prof. Ardeth Thawnghmung and Adjunct Prof. Jason Carter. Students miss a week of class to attend an international conference — this year in Toronto; they have just three weeks to research for their parts as delegates. 

“My friends in the club said not to tell anyone at the conference that it was my first time,” says Jimenez, who took the role of Mali’s defense minister. “Because of its current instability, Mali was the big issue at the conference, with two competing delegations from the government and the rebel group.” 
Working hard — “I had to get my facts straight” — and handling a crisis — “I used my intelligence agencies to find a rebel spy in the government” — Jimenez won the Outstanding Delegate award. “I’m very proud of myself,” she says.

IRC Builds Skills, Leadership

The hard work that students put in for conferences can have far-reaching benefits.

“The IRC has been so good for me,” says Edwyn Shoemaker, a senior in political science who won Honorable Mention at the competition. “It’s changed my life, especially through the people I’ve met.” These include UMass Lowell alum and Massachusetts State Rep. Sean Garballey, who coaches the IRC on public speaking and diplomacy, and “has become a personal guide and mentor,” says Shoemaker.

Shoemaker interned for Garballey at the State House last summer and will soon be in Washington, D.C., on an internship with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Besides working on policy proposals to bring equity to youth in adoption or foster care, he will intern for Sen. Orrin Hatch as a Finance Committee staffer.

“None of this would be possible without the club. The IRC has helped me to articulate my feelings and my ideas. I want to do political work advocating for children in the system,” says Shoemaker, who has personal experience growing up through foster care. “It’s like this: when you walk in the path, you stoop down and toss a stone from the path for the next person, because a stone can trip anyone, even a giant.”

Reaching the Next Generation

Each spring, IRC students turn from competing to planning and running a model U.N. conference at UMass Lowell for high school students. IRC members recruit the high school teams, assign each team a country to represent, line up keynote speakers and order prize ribbons and supplies. For three days, they host 10 or more student teams and their advisers.

“Being in charge is very different,” says Michael Taylor, a junior political science major who joined IRC as a freshman. “We [college students] become chairs of the U.N. committees and decide what content to discuss. For example, I chaired the human rights committee and our topics were human trafficking and government corruption.”

The high school delegates also had to deal with a crisis: in this case, a group of Chinese dissidents petitioning the U.N. for relief from political persecution.

“It’s impressive to see how much high school students can accomplish with commitment,” says Taylor. “They really knew their stuff.”

The IRC (founded in 1984 by history Prof. Emeritus Dean Bergeron) is one of the most successful clubs on campus and has traveled to compete at conferences in Geneva, London, Antalya (Turkey) and Vancouver, to name just a few. Students have won more than 100 individual Outstanding Delegate awards and 15 Best Delegation awards.