UMass Lowell's model U.N. prepares students for important real-life roles

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By MICHAEL LAFLEUR

LOWELL- Right now, a talented group of University of Massachusetts Lowell students is immersed in the detailed preparation required of U.N. delegates.

By spring, they'll have represented Cambodia, Iran, Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, Spain and Tanzania at all of the United Nations' various assemblages.

They won't really be international delegates, of course. What they're involved in is something the university calls its model leagues program, which sends students to collegiate symposiums where they act as mock delegates to world bodies such as the U.N., competing against their peers from around the world.

"It's role playing," said adjunct UMass Lowell professor Don Leonard, 25, a former participant. "It's a little bit of theater, but it's also bringing new ideas to old problems."

UMass Lowell participates through its International Relations Club, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary.

In February, club members will head to England for a conference sponsored by the London School of Economics. In April, it's off to U.N. headquarters in New York City.

Founded by Professor Dean Bergeron, the club is actually a multiyear course in which the countries the students represent are constantly changing. Students must see current issues and dilemmas through the eyes of actual diplomats for the country they represent, then act accordingly.

If it would be in a nation's self-interest to avoid international denunciation, for example, student delegates are judged by how well they negotiate with other student representatives on the mock international body to achieve that.

"You're judged not only on your presentation skills, you're judged by how well you represent the country," said club president Jason Carter, 27.

From humble roots the basement of Coburn Hall on UMass Lowell's South Campus the club has had remarkable success.

Alumni have gone to successful careers in government, including Roger Cressey, a member of the first International Relations Club who has worked as a domestic intelligence and counter-terrorism analyst at the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council.

"This is not the type of thing that the University of Lowell historically participated in," said Cressey, 38. "When people think of Lowell on a national level, they think of engineering and computer science. What Dean did with the model leagues was give national exposure to the university's liberal arts programs in a way that it never had before."

This will be Bergeron's last year with the club, as he ends his 40-year career at UMass Lowell.

"I will emphatically miss it," he said.

During a recent class, about 25 students engaged in a wide-ranging discussion on such topics as Russia's refusal to join in the Iraq war and why prosecuting officials from the infamous Khmer Rouge regime which carried out horrendous atrocities in the 1970s would be opposed by the current Cambodian government.

Leonard gave a lecture on the European Union and Spain's ascension to it in 1986.

Lisa Chandonnet, a 24-year-old Tyngsboro resident and UMass Lowell graduate student, just returned from a university-funded trip to the African nation of Zambia. She took questions about her experience, giving her views on what she described as the cause of prohibitively high costs for AIDS drugs in that country.

"The key is not the absence of policies," she told her audience. "It's the inability to implement policies."

Chandonnet, a finalist for the prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship, and Leonard are among a new generation of high-achieving club members, continuing a tradition started by Cressey and Todd Masse, a former club member who received his bachelors degree from UMass Lowell in 1988.

"When you look at it, the skills that you learned they sort of went beyond academic skills," said Masse, now an analyst with the Congressional Research Service. "You'd be negotiating with other parties. There were critical thinking skills. How to influence people, how to write, how to negotiate.

"The skills that you learn in that program are really life skills."