The following article is written by a Y-MUN alumnus and current volunteer, reflecting on what makes our program distinctive. For information on how to join Y-MUN, contact Alex Wolkomir at awolkomir@ymcace.org.

Cover for slider

Fierce competition and one-upsmanship. Winning at all costs. Me versus us. These are a few common words many associate with Model UN programs today. From universities to local schools, Model UN has become a sport of highly-groomed teams who emphasize “winning” at all costs. In their terms, winning means awards. It means individual spotlight and glory. It means everything that the UN does not.

First and foremost, Model UN is about collaboration. It is about building bridges – not erecting walls between people – to promote better understanding. In my view, this means that a true “Model UN” should incentivize character and cooperation as metrics for victory – not who can cut others out of a resolution and claim all the glory.

During my time in high school, I attended a variety of Model UN conferences hosted by some of the finest institutions in our country. In college, I considered the prospect of getting more deeply involved in Model UN – only to find it did not represent the values I aspired to develop, and oftentimes, it was a front for partying – either at a conference or as a funding source for the hosting organization through the fees it collected. However, with the YMCA, I saw the light. For four years in high school, there was one Model UN conference I came back to without hesitation. That was in 2006. Years later, in 2017, I have not missed one of the program’s conferences since. And I am not alone – there are alumni who have been attending annually for tens of years as a volunteer to pay it forward.

What keeps people coming back? What makes the YMCA’s program so special? In my view, there are three key ingredients:

  • Students collaborating in our classroom-style setup

    Students collaborating in our classroom-style setup

    Character building and collaboration: The YMCA’s program still has great debate and recognizes excellence in discussion and position paper writing. However, the program has awards that go deeply beyond this. Students write each other “Character Development Awards” that recognize exemplary actions or behavior delegates take towards one another – such as helping a shy student work up the courage to speak and construct an argument. Awards are not arbitrarily chosen by a college student – they are voted on by peers in the committee, mandating a need for relationship-building just as occurs in international relations. Most importantly, committee rooms are not set up with theater style seating and no workspace – the conference prefers classroom-style setups with tables around which students can craft resolutions, promoting a more collaborative environment.

  • Student-driven – not just student attended – but expert-run: The Y-MUN program is not merely attended by students for a weekend – it is architected through year-around leadership training by students who are elected to be chairs by their peers. Through a series of weekend retreats and meetings, students develop skills in servant leadership, and then host the annual conference as a capstone project for their peers. This allows young people to learn how to tone set with peers and drive a large group forward productively – invaluable skills they rarely ever get at such a young age. They are guided by a team of 50+ alumni, all who volunteer their time to mentor students during the conference weekend. They bring wisdom, real-world experience, and professionalism that comes with the YMCA staff they work with to provide a safe, de-risked environment for student growth and expression.
  • Students with the pencils collected by Y-MUN delegates

    Schoolchildren in Africa with the pencils collected by Y-MUN delegates

    Service and action emphasis: The YMCA Program goes beyond seeing topics as discussion points – it brings them to life and helps inspire students to make a difference. Every year, the conference selects a theme (e.g., human rights), and constructs educational videos and materials throughout conference that educate delegates on the issue. This theme is accompanied by a tangible service project that shows students how collectively they can come together and affect an issue. When the theme was education, students collected 19 thousand pencils that were shipped to schools with partner organization Develop Africa. For economic justice, the conference partnered with the organization Soles4Souls, helping those in need both domestically and abroad get access to a basic item – shoes. In short, Y-MUN bring topics to life. The goal is that conference weekend is just the beginning of a journey for students to take action.

In short, the YMCA Program is special. It is why students come back year after year. It is also why the program has been rapidly growing – now serving ~2,000 participants annually. Most of all, though, the YMCA Program serves as model others should emulate. Our world needs listeners, our world needs collaborators – in short, our world needs servant leaders in the true spirit of the UN and YMCA. Most Model UN programs are failing our young people – teaching them that greatness comes from being the loudest voice that is unwavering and uncompromising. They need to look to the YMCA program as a potential model for evolution.