Student Well-Being

In Model UN, Students Study Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine—and Reckon With the Cost of War

By Sarah Schwartz — March 11, 2022 5 min read
Image of United Nations Headquarters with the members flags erected on the poles.
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In a Model UN group meeting Wednesday evening, students discussing the Russia-Ukraine war had questions—about NATO, sanctions, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s statements. But they had the most to say about the humanitarian impacts of the Russian invasion.

“There’s going to be an ongoing immigration crisis,” said one girl, noting the millions of refugees who have already fled Ukraine.

Another brought up Russia’s retaliation against anti-war protestors: “Not just in Ukraine, but a lot of people around the world who have tried to voice their opinion on this war have been mistreated,” she said.

Later, when this student gave a statement on the issue as a delegate of France, these humanitarian issues were front and center.

“It has been one of the greatest tragedies since World War II,” she said. “France acknowledges that Russia is the cause for the war in Ukraine. However, our country wants to work toward creating peace between Russia and Ukraine by negotiations.”

Sarai Leon, the group’s adviser, said the topic engaged her group of 8th to 12th graders—even those who usually don’t speak up regularly. During their evening meeting that week, students had discussed the invasion, researched their assigned country’s position on the crisis, and crafted speeches.

“Students their age want to be at the table for those discussions,” said Leon, who advises the group through Best Delegate, a company that offers virtual and in-person Model UN programs for grades 5-12 after school and during the summer.

More than 400,000 middle school, high school, and college students worldwide participate in Model UN every year, according to UNESCO. In the United States, it’s usually an extracurricular activity.

Students take on the role of a country, researching policy positions in preparation for competitions, which are simulations of UN General Assembly meetings. There, students try to build consensus with other country delegations on global problems and vote on resolutions.

Faculty advisers say that in recent weeks, the groups have also provided a space to talk about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

Because Model UN takes place outside of the classroom, teacher advisers often have more flexibility to explore current events in depth than they might in the curriculum, said Paul Myette, an English teacher and Model UN faculty adviser at North Andover High School in North Andover, Mass.

As an English or social studies teacher, “we have to simplify a narrative sometimes to meet with a pacing guide,” Myette said. “It’s useful to constantly be reminded that that narrative is not the whole narrative, and to go beyond it when we can.”

Acknowledging the humanitarian crisis

The United Nations has already taken significant steps to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Studying these actions can be an entry point into meaningful discussions, Myette said.

His Model UN team examined the United Nations General Assembly vote on March 2, in which 141 of 193 member states voted to demand that Russia withdraw its military forces from Ukraine.

They discussed which countries didn’t support the resolution and which abstained. “It’s a great jumping off point to talk about the more-complex, geopolitical implications of something like this,” Myette said.

In Leon’s virtual group meeting, she also started with a recap of what has happened in the war so far.

Her students watched a broadcast on the topic—a kids’ edition of the Nightly News with Lester Holt—and then Leon prompted the group with a few discussion questions: Why does Russia see NATO as a threat? What are some global economic impacts of the invasion? And what are the humanitarian impacts?

One student brought up sanctions: Some countries have stopped taking oil from Russia, she said. “I’ve heard that gas prices and inflation for gas is really high,” another added.

Others talked about the strain on the Russian people, civilian casualties in Ukraine, and the millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing their country.

“Russia is actually hurting civilians, when they said that they were not going to,” one boy said.

“As far as I know, when there’s a war, opponents are not allowed to bomb hospitals. But the Russian government bombed a kids’ hospital,” he continued, referencing videos that surfaced on Wednesday of wounded people evacuating a destroyed maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine.

Leon listened, adding context to what students shared. And she emphasized the human toll of war: that Ukrainian refugees would be entering countries already strained by Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis; that economic sanctions also have effects on regular Russian people.

“It’s not just an issue between 10 to 15 diplomats,” she said.

Navigating ‘sensitive’ situations

Even so, Model UN is usually organized around negotiations between diplomats, said Myette, the Massachusetts teacher.

He spends most of his time helping students prepare for the competitions—researching their country’s positions and other countries’ as well, to figure out who might make what deals and negotiations.

But this year, like Leon, he’s devoted more time to helping students parse the humanitarian issues. His team was assigned to represent Russia at the interschool conference they’ll be attending this spring.

One of the goals in Model UN is to accurately represent the aims of students’ assigned country. “In this case, it’s so sensitive representing Russia, there’s also the need to keep talking about what’s going on,” Myette said. He’s started spending the first part of each meeting talking about the evolving situation and discussing students’ questions.

It’s common for Model UN conferences to simulate international crises, said Katty Lee, a world language teacher and Model UN adviser at Paramus High School in Paramus, N.J. She anticipates that the Russian invasion, and the resulting refugee crisis, will be a topic in forthcoming conferences.

Sometimes, she said, this can lead to difficult situations for students, who may be role-playing as delegates from countries that are in violation of international law, or whose policy decisions they disagree with. “Whatever country we get, we have to represent that view,” Lee said.

Still, Lee thinks that the process of researching a country’s position—even if students wouldn’t justify it—can help them better understand the forces that shape geopolitics.

“Those cases do create other conversations—about what’s right and what’s wrong—that are very productive,” she said.

Myette said that discussing international issues with students in Model UN after school often prompts him to use a more-global lens in his curriculum, too. He recently bought an anthology of Ukrainian literature to use in his English classes.

“It really does allow for a broader, more-nuanced look on the world,” he said.

Coverage of afterschool learning opportunities is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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