The Towson University–Baltimore County Public School Model United Nations program is going virtual. Since 2003, the program has been preparing high school students to become leaders in civic engagement and international affairs. Led by Dr. Alison Rios Millett McCartney in the Department of Political Science, TU partners with Baltimore County Public Schools to host two to three hundred students on campus for an annual Model UN Conference every March. Throughout the year and leading up to the event, BCPS students prepare to represent a country and work with TU students on best practices for research and debates. Not only does this program expose students to a college environment, it provides an equitable opportunity for high school students to improve their writing, research, and presentation skills outside of the classroom and expand their global learning.

While students would typically be preparing for the in-person conference in March, this year will look quite different. With the number of students and program format, transitioning this in-person event to a virtual event is not an easy task. Dr. McCartney and adjunct faculty Michele Calderon, along with support from students Madeleine Meyer and Connor Cameron, have been working to determine the best and most productive way to hold this virtually.

Operational changes

This year, students from 21 schools will represent 113 countries at the conference. Considering the number of students involved, the Model UN team has had to get creative and will be trying something new this year by grouping students into seven “pods.” Each pod will consist of about 25 to 35 students, who will represent 15 to 17 countries. This way, students will still be able to collaborate and interact with each other like they would have in-person, and this structure makes the Zoom logistics more manageable. Prior to the event, students will participate in training nights to make sure they understand the schedule and technology, but also as a way for them to get to know one another through games and icebreaker activities. The team has also introduced a new type of award this year. Typically, the students work on a position paper to give a policy brief about the country they are representing. In addition to the writing a paper, the students will have the option to create their policy brief in the form of a presentation, video, or other medium to win the award for the best multi-modal position paper.

Increased support

Due to the interactive nature of this event, moving it to a virtual format means that it will take more operational and volunteer support. Through a class with Dr. McCartney, TU students work directly with the high school students to coach and prepare them for the conference. High school students typically come to campus for a Training Day in the fall where they participate in workshops and work with the TU students on preparing to represent their assigned country. The Model UN program has been such a transformational experience for TU students that many return to volunteer after they’ve completed the course and after graduation. As a result of going virtual, students from the fall semester, over two dozen other TU Political Science students, members of the TU Undergraduate Research Club, and many alumni from across the East Coast have signed up to volunteer for the event. Having so many TU students and alumni involved is incredibly meaningful for the high school students and just shows how highly regarded this program is by the TU community.

Creating new opportunities

Not only has the virtual event allowed for more alumni involvement, but the Model UN team had the opportunity to bring in an outside speaker to the Training Day in the fall who otherwise may not have been able to attend if the event was in-person. This year, students were able to hear first-hand from Olukunbi Orimoloye, a detention nurse for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Myanmar, about current issues related to international affairs and the Covid-19 pandemic. With an in-person event, opportunities like this may not have been possible.

While the program looks very different this year, Dr. McCartney noted that both the TU students and the high school students have been incredibly enthusiastic and engaged throughout everything. If anything, the virtual programming has allowed students to become more connected with TU students and alumni, and with each other. Moving forward, some of the changes that are being implemented, such as the training nights, have proven to be beneficial and will continue into future years. Even though we can’t be together in person this year, the MUN team has worked hard to make this year’s conference a fun and worthwhile experience for the students.