How can we maintain the security of Ukraine? How will the housing and homelessness crisis in Gaza be addressed in light of recent Israeli air strikes? Can a carbon neutral and an energy secure Europe be built?
The dockets of the U.N. Security Council and the European Union are natural places to tackle these global questions. But 60 members of East Lansing High School’s (ELHS) Model U.N. club regularly delve into such issues in their practices and competitions.
Mark Pontoni, an ELHS social studies teacher, has been advising the club for five years and was himself a member of the Model U.N. when he was in high school. When he arrived at ELHS, there were only eight student members of the club.
At the most recent state conference, held in early December 2022 in Lansing, Pontoni took 50 students to compete. Eight of those students earned honors. Second honors went to senior Jack McGuire, junior Mona Borham, senior Edith Pendell, junior Anna Sarinopoulos and senior Skyler Hamlin. Those earning top honors were junior Fletcher Wasnich, senior Iyla Blundell and junior McKenzie Smith.
Emily Zann, a second-year social studies teacher at ELHS, is a co-adviser for the group.
Hugh Hankenson, a 2022 graduate of ELHS, explained how Model U.N. competitions work.
“Six or eight weeks before [a competition],” he said, “you’re assigned a country and a committee to sit on. In the context of that committee, you’re given two or three prompts to consider – reducing the proliferation of nuclear weapons or negotiating Kosovo’s independence, for example. We write a position paper to describe our country’s stance and what actions we want to take in committee.”
The actual competition requires students to work with peers from other schools throughout the country, to abandon preconceived ideas and think on their feet.
“They conduct lots of research,” Pontoni said. “And they develop points of view that are different than their own. The great advantage [of Model U.N.] is kids get to step back from their role as American high school students and look at issues from different points of view, ostensibly look at the U.S. from different points of view. They see how our country is perceived around the world and how U.S. actions affect so many different people in different ways.
“That’s why I do it,” Pontoni said. “It builds critical thinkers. It builds citizens who are better equipped to evaluate the actions of our own country.”
Pendell, who earned second highest honors in her committee at the December conference, represented India in the U.N. Security Council.
“We develop lots and lots of skills [in Model U.N.],” she said. “We develop a sort of adaptability, a way of being able to respond to changes and questions. A lot of Model U.N. is preparing and researching certain things, but you’re never sure what the committee or simulation will throw at you. It’s the ability to go with the flow. It built a lot of self-confidence for me. It takes a lot to be able to go into a room of people you don’t know and start talking. It’s a skill that starts in Model U.N. and goes with you everywhere else.”
Hankenson, a freshman at Harvard University studying biomedical engineering, explained his own growth because of the club.
“I increased my oratory abilities,” he said. “I really improved my ability to speak rhetorically and speak with groups. How to collaborate and make concessions. You can’t get anything done if you’re working alone in Model U.N.”
He also has high praise for his former teacher and adviser, Pontoni.
“He’s been such an inspiring, great mentor,” he said. “He really is the superstar of Model U.N.”
“Mr. Pontoni is definitely my favorite teacher,” Pendell said. “He’s always been the type of adviser who is there when the members need him, but he rarely oversteps. He’s building a community but also building a global consciousness in the club.”
Pendell, who is considering a college major of political science, also gives credit to a grant the club received from the East Lansing Educational Foundation [ELEF] in 2022.
“It helped us not be super stressed about fundraising all the time,” she said. “And it helped make sure people who normally wouldn’t be able to participate would be able to participate.”
The club is typically required to raise any money it needs to attend competitions. Pontoni said the budget is approximately $24,000. Parents who have the ability are asked to contribute $75 at the beginning of the year, providing some seed money to get the year started.
The group’s next competition will be held over four days in March in Kalamazoo at the Mid-American Model United Nations Conference. And no matter the results, Pontoni is proud of his students.
“They push themselves,” he said. “I don’t push them to win at these conferences. But some of the top schools in Michigan compete and our kids really pride themselves when they can win awards against them.
“I really think we’ve developed some great leaders. I don’t think they even knew they were capable of doing some of the things they’ve accomplished.”Those wishing to support the efforts of the club financially are encouraged to reach out to Pontoni at email@example.com.