By David Perry
The 2020 Model U.N. conference in Leuven, Belgium went well for the UMass Lowell team. The River Hawks won seven individual awards during the March 3-7 event, and the social activities, including a vast farmer’s market in the town square, were fun and plentiful.
Though COVID-19 cases were beginning to rise, the pandemic didn’t impact the competition. But things were about to change.
“I think it’s safe to say that the students did not understand the extent of the trouble,” says Jack Bove, then-president of UML’s Dean Bergeron International Relations Club
, which sponsors the Model U.N.
By the time the team landed at Boston’s Logan Airport, the last dominoes tumbled hard toward a massive shutdown. UML went virtual, and as a result, the annual April Model U.N. conference that the International Relations Club hosts for area high schools was scrapped. (This year’s conference went on virtually, but with four teams instead of 10.)
Over time, the Model U.N. team adapted to the virtual world. There were challenges, but the students found ways to work through them.
In February, the River Hawks topped the University of Toronto, Queens College and the U.S. Air Force Academy, earning Best Large Delegation at the University of Toronto-based North American Model United Nations conference, one of the oldest and most distinguished Model U.N. events in North America.
The 16-person UML team also landed four best delegate awards among seven individual awards at the conference.
In March, at the Southeast Regional Model Arab League at Converse College in South Carolina, “we did even better,” says Jason Carter
, adviser to the International Relations Club. The students landed nine individual awards among the 15 participating students and two delegation awards.
How’d they do it? Intense preparation. And some virtual camaraderie didn’t hurt, the students say.
The summer of 2020 was filled with remote meetings to plan “every facet of training, and to preempt issues brought on by the limitations of Zoom,” says Bove, a political science and history major.
“I’ll admit, I was pessimistic at the beginning of the year,” says Ben Souza, a junior and the International Relations Club’s current president. “But it really came down to the people we had. This was an incredibly dedicated group of students who were not just there for a trip to Belgium or Scotland. Everyone adapted.”
Model U.N. is infused with the sort of intense pride most athletic teams would welcome.
Bove says new members enter a culture with a “strong” institutional memory, and “the collective wisdom of 30 years of Model U.N. experience, passed down through faculty and students” that inspires a “fervent devotion” among club members.
“We train hard for sure, but we all have a lot of fun whenever we compete. It becomes second nature after a while,” he says.
To prepare for the competitions, there were intensive sessions focused on research, writing and public speaking skills. According to adviser Carter, preparations included students familiarizing themselves with “a wide range of technical programs, used for delegate-to-delegate communication and voting.”
The fall was loaded with weekly and twice-weekly mock debates, independent of regular meetings.
“We pulled from members with technical skill to create platform test runs and were able to iron out most bugs before the beginning of our conference season,” says Bove. “Veteran members contributed to training new delegates, and I even tuned in on Zoom from Washington D.C., where I was interning at the time.”
Bove says the most difficult aspect of operating remotely was replicating the social aspect of the club.
“The team tends to move and act as a family after at least one conference,” he says. “That social cohesion is precisely what allows us to perform, and there was an initial deficit of interaction there. But we maintained active social ties with the club and new members as best we could.”
They created a server on Discord, the voice and video chat app, for easy communication.
They tightened as a unit.
Bove says the camaraderie positioned the team to train and perform effectively at the virtual conferences.
“We had game night, video chats,” says Souza. “We’d just hang out. We have a very active Facebook chat. We couldn’t do what we used to, so we did what we could.”