When East Lansing High School students Maisie Minnick, Reena Natla, Adan Quan, and Evie Wittrock chose Ukraine in late fall 2021 as the country they would represent at the Mid-American Model United Nations Conference in Kalamazoo held this month, they did so because few options were left. None had significant previous knowledge about the country’s history or politics.
In fall 2021, the students never anticipated that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting war would influence their preparation for representing Ukraine. But the war did come, and Minnick, Natla, Quan, and Wittrock threw themselves into understanding the conflict as they prepared for their conference.
During the school year, the Model UN club at ELHS meets after school for 30 minutes, explained Minnick. About 40 students are part of the club, and 33 attended the conference in Kalamazoo, where more than 300 students from Ohio and Michigan convened.
Students attending the conference prepare by researching the views of the countries that they will represent, which ultimately results in position papers that help students develop a general outline of what they need to know. The goal of Model UN is to represent your country’s actual viewpoints while meeting in committees and the general assembly.
The students dug into their research, and in December 2021, Quan stumbled upon an article on Russian military exercises and the build-up of Russian troops along the country’s border with Ukraine. Quan shared it with his teammates, but they didn’t anticipate a war. As Wittrock pointed out, it was just one, relatively unknown news source at that point.
The threat of invasion and war loomed larger, however, when the students returned from winter break in early January. Natla followed updates about the threat of war in Ukraine from the New York Times. Wittrock told ELi that she listens to NPR while driving and listened for news about Ukraine.
When preparing for the conferences, Wittrock explained, each student represents their country in three committees each that handle topics as varied as outer space, disarmament, and cultural property. Natla told ELi that as more and more news emerged about the brewing conflict and later the actual war, it became more difficult to find other information related to Ukraine.
The students then began to worry. If Russia did invade Ukraine and quickly won, would the students still have a country to represent? Mark Pontoni, the ELHS teacher who moderates the Model UN club at the high school, assured them that the UN would not stand for Ukraine disappearing from its membership.
What does the Mid-American Model UN Conference Look Like?
Quan explained that the first two days of the conference primarily consist of students representing their countries in specific committees. There is also a crisis simulation, in which students respond to a catastrophe. This year, it was a blackout across North America.
The war in Ukraine didn’t influence the committees too much, according to the students. Committee discussions stick the specific topics, but in some instances, tensions between Russian and Ukraine did come to the fore, such as when Natla represented Ukraine in a discussion on cultural artifacts. Ukraine’s position is that Russia is in possession of some of its historical artifacts.
But even as the students weaved their way in and out of committees, the war was ever-present behind the scenes. Ukraine was called to come speak before the UN Security Council. Minnick, the only person representing Ukraine that had previously attended a Model UN conference, acted as Ukraine’s representative before the Security Council and was grilled for nearly an hour.
After committee meetings, the General Assembly convenes. Usually, the General Assembly focuses on passing resolutions based on what happened in committees, but this time, Assembly revolved around one thing: the war in Ukraine.
The students were able to read a speech that Quan had written in advance that referenced topics those following the war might be familiar with.
“[I]f Russia is allowed to get away with their pretense for this invasion, then what is stopping them from creating false claims in the future to justify an invasion,” wrote Quan. “Who could be next? What nations that have escaped the grip of Russia could be brought back under them? The Baltics? Georgia? Who is next?”
He also posed the question: “Should old empires be able to bring their former subjects and colonies back under them?”
During the General Assembly, other countries drafted resolutions – 12 in all – regarding the war in Ukraine. Many countries consulted with the Ukrainian delegation, and the team was able to influence some resolutions that were put forward.
Many resolutions called for humanitarian aid, and the team favored resolutions that allowed for democracy and continued dialog between Russia and Ukraine. For example, they backed a resolution that called for a plebiscite in Donetsk and Luhansk but did not support a resolution calling for Russia’s expulsion from the UN.
Minnick explained how different the General Assembly was this time. Minnick, who led the teams efforts in the General Assembly, was relying on updates about what was happening in real time. She found herself needing to know not only Ukraine’s positions but the changing terrain of where other countries were coming down regarding the war. Knowing where other countries stood influenced what they may or may not bring forth in a resolution.
How did the ELHS perform?
In the end, Minnick, Natla, Quan, and Wittrock all were awarded first place for representing Ukraine in a committee. Other ELHS students representing other countries also took home awards: Edith Pendell (first place representing China), Amelia Pauly (second place representing Indonesia), Jack McGuire (second place representing Argentina), Sydney Zaagman (first place representing Pakistan), Alden Delgado (second place representing Argentina), and Hugh Hankenson (second place representing China).
ELHS took home second honors overall among all schools participating, Pontoni expressed his gratitude to the East Lansing Education Foundation, which provided financial support for students to attend the conference.
With the conference now behind them, Minnick, Natla, Quan, and Wittrock still follow what is happening with the war. Natla still gets her news alerts. Wittrock is still listening to NPR.
The students said that to some extent, they feel helpless. The war is affecting millions of people who will live with the physical and emotional scars of what they witness, they explained. Families are being separated and killed, they said, pointing to updates from the war.
They also referenced the difficulties Russians are facing now: Conscripts are believed to be participating in combat and Russians at home are feeling the effects of sanctions.
They want to do more, but what a teenager in East Lansing can do to support Ukraine and Ukrainians is limited. All hoped that their peers – and everyone – would seek to learn more about the conflict and the history of Ukraine.