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Maine Students Take on Weighty Issues in Model UN Conference
05/15/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Nearly 500 high school students - most of them from Maine - are grappling with some pretty heavy issues this week: human trafficking, chemical weapons monitoring, and women's rights in the Third World. It's all part of the Maine Model United Nations Conference, taking place at the University of Southern Maine's Gorham campus until tomorrow. Now in its 15th year, the program is designed to teach high schoolers about global awareness and diplomacy. Tom Porter reports.

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Nearly 500 high school students - most of them from Maine - are grappling with some pretty heavy issues this week: human trafficking, chemical weapons monitoring, and women's rights in the Third World. It's all part of the Maine Model United Nations Conference, taking place at the University of Southern Maine's Gorham campus until tomorrow. Now in its 15th year, the program is designed to teach high schoolers about global awareness and diplomacy. Tom Porter reports.

In one "committee room" on campus, the UN Population Fund is hard at work. A group of high school students - each one serving as a delegate from a particular country - is making progress towards a resolution on the issue of women's rights.

"The People's Republic of Bangladesh would like to echo the sentiment of Spain and the United States," says one.

"Today we're debating reproductive rights, and we're trying to find a way to eliminate female genital mutilation, and by doing so, we're going to propose it through education and through funding," says Mason Saltz, a 17-year-old junior at Waynflete in Portland.

But for the purposes of this exercise, Saltz is the delegate representing Bangladesh. He was up half the night, he says, working on a draft resolution aimed at strengthening women's reproductive rights without offending the cultural norms of certain countries.

"I love it," Saltz says. "I'm learning so much, it's such a good experience."

"I am playing the delegate from the United States in the United Nations Population Fund," says Benjy Astrakhan, a 17-year-old senior at Casco Bay High School.

"Well, I'm going to be going to college next year and I want to do international relations," Astrakhan says. "So this has just been a great experience to learn about the inner workings of the UN as well as to see how countries would actually interact with one another in a formal setting."

The three-day conference is being supervised by USM students and faculty. Recent USM graduate Tim Stretton looks nothing like Ban Ki Moon, but is relishing his fleeting role as UN Secretary General. Each of the kids, he says, has had to prepare in advance for the conference.

"And their job for the last few months has been to research their country, research their commitee, and each committee has two different topics," Stretton says. "So they research their country's position on those two different topics, and for three days they come and debtae the issues with a goal of hammering out a resolution."

Because a crisis can occur at anytime, these teenage diplomats have to be prepared to expect the unexpected. USM junior Neal Young is one of two so-called "crisis tsars" at the conference. He's spent a good deal of time drawing up various unexpected crises, which the UN Security Council will have to deal with on the fly.

"So far what we've thrown at them is a crisis in Aceh, a small autonomous province in Indonesia, and we've had ethnic cleansing of the local Guyanese," Young says. "The Security Council intervened by sending in peacekeeping forces monitored by the Indonesian goverrnment."

And the next crisis coming their way, he explains, will be a massacre of Mbuti pygmies in the Congolese jungle. "So we'll be introducing the kind of crises that they will not have heard about prior to this, so that they can act on it based on what their countries moral values are," Young says.

The program organizers praise the fact that it not only forces the kids to be aware of world events, but to look at them from a different perspective. USM Political Science ;ecturer Juliette Edwards is program director.

"It has impacted me in a way that has helped me to see how the international community really is a product of what you do at the local level, and that you can actually have an impact in what you're doing, and use whatever skills you learn about the world to fix your own backyard," Edwards says.

She also says the the program helps to fill what she describes as a gap in the education system, "especially in the public schools, where they maybe are lucky to get a world history class - maybe," she says. "And so to build some global competency among our students and get them ready for a globalized world is really what we're about."

The 15th Annual Maine Model United Nations Conference wraps up on Thursday afternoon. Learn more about the program.

Photo:  Tom Porter.



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