A well-researched opinion isn’t a substitute for lived experience. This was the thought going through the mind of Celina Cookson ’23 as she took the podium representing China at the Model UN conference in Amersfoort, Netherlands, in February. In the audience was a student from China, and facing a student from the country she was representing was a first for the Model UN veteran.
“I didn’t want to be offensive in how I represented his country and I wanted to present the stance professionally,” she said. “This isn’t something you get to experience really at competitions in the U.S.”
The issue being debated was the violence against women in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Based on her research, Cookson as China took the stance that the country wouldn’t vote to impose sanctions on Iran. After the session the student from China approached Cookson and asked why she had taken that stance.
“I explained that based on my research I thought China would vote no because they would want to protect the privacy of their own country,” Cookson said. “It was a neat experience to meet someone from the country I was representing and even more cool to show that I had done my research.”
Cookson was awarded best delegate for her council. At the conference, students were divided into 10 councils, each of which consisted of approximately 30 students. Noah Lilienfeld ’24 received an honorable mention for the work he did in his council. Also competing were Paige Rhodes ’23, Peyton Streu ’23, Devon Williams ’24, Weston Porter ’24, and Eden Jewell ’25.
Model UN conferences simulate the UN General Assembly and other multilateral UN groups. Students step into the role of ambassadors and debate important topics such as gender equality, climate action, and global health.
PRA’s team was the only non-European team at the FAMUN conference in Amersfoort, Netherlands. Each year Steve Cutillo, Model UN sponsor and high school social studies teacher, takes the team to compete at either a national or an international competition. This was the team’s first trip to the Netherlands for a conference. Last year they competed in Boston, and have also traveled to Copenhagen and New York. They participate in about five conferences across Colorado each year.
European Model UN conferences are run differently from those in the U.S. and that left the PRA competitors “a little off kilter,” Cutillo said. But by day two Cookson said she and her teammates had made the adjustments necessary and were enjoying the competition. Model UN conferences are conducted in English, which Cookson said gave the PRA team a slight advantage.
“Model UN uses a different way of speaking already, and then for most English wasn’t their first language,” Cookson said, “so being English speakers and fully articulate gave us a leg up.”
Cookson attributed her good showing in the competition to her experience at previous conferences. Having participated since freshman year, she said she understands that disagreements and tension in Model UN aren’t personal. Having competed she also had good presentation skills.
“The biggest thing is public speaking, and I also do theater so I’m comfortable with that,” she said. “Model UN is a great place to learn conflict resolution. You have to set aside your personal bias and solve the issues from a place where you can see the conflict and help solve it.”
Cutillo has been sponsoring PRA’s Model UN for seven years. He also taught and ran a Model UN program in Thailand. His approach is for the club to be as student-led as possible. The Executive Council chooses the conferences to attend, they do the research and plan the trips.
“Not every club member is on the same level so our more experienced members help the younger members,” he said. “Our most experienced delegates have attended three to four national or international conferences. So our Executive Council runs in-house conferences just for the club to help newer members gain experience.”
Cutillo said participating in Model UN is beneficial for students in a variety of ways.
“Model UN is often considered the best extracurricular on college applications,” Cutillo said. “The competitions provide opportunities to meet and get to know people from other cultures and countries. Tournaments help with public presentation, speaking skills, and formality. It’s a valuable experience.”
“I get to spend time with some of the best kids in the school,” Cutillo said. “I love experiencing the international conferences with them. It’s also an opportunity to spend time with kids outside the classroom, which helps you to care more about the kids and that’s valuable to what you’re doing both in and beyond the classroom. The students get to see you as a human, not just a teacher.”
By Amy G. Partain
PRA Communications Manager