One of the most unexpected and rewarding parts of the last several months has been my work with a newly formed Model United Nations delegation. BelgaMUN, as the fledging delegation has come to be called, is the first delegation to unite bachelor’s and master’s students from Flemish- and French-speaking universities across Belgium, including some from my placement, l’Université Saint-Louis in Brussels. Together we attended the London International Model United Nations Conference in February 2022.
The students who participated in BelgaMUN did so as incredibly hard-working volunteers. They participated not for class credit or degree requirements, but for their belief in the work of the UN, for their belief in the value of model UN experiences, and for their belief in the concept of a united Belgian delegation of students, regardless of their mother tongue or university affiliation. I met these students for the first time in September when they arrived from cities and towns all over the country at the introductory meeting in central Brussels. There they presented what would become the first of many speeches. Some were timid, some were exuberant, some had excellent English skills, some didn’t trust their English skills, but all came prepared with well-crafted speeches and significant time invested in researching their speech topics.
Each month we met to discuss presentation skills, practice improvisation, improve English pronunciation, research the position of various countries, analyze the UN charter, break down UN rules of procedures, and work together to become a well-prepared delegation. Almost all our work was done in English with both native Flemish and native French speakers, as they helped each other with challenging vocabulary and tricky grammar. We were preparing for the international model UN conference in London, where all proceedings would be in English, all speeches would have to be given in English, all drafts would be composed in English, all voting blocs would be negotiated in English, and all resolutions set to be approved would be in English. Our group of 16 English language learners were preparing to participate in an incredibly challenging activity in one of their secondary languages. As a native English speaker myself, I was in awe. The things being asked of these students would be challenging for native speakers – politics are never simple, and bureaucracy is always complex, but every month these students enhanced their vocabularies, improved their pronunciation, gained confidence in their grammar, tirelessly added to their research on their countries, and never gave up.
This delegation had tremendous support. Teachers and former instructors from multiple universities were involved, students who had previously participated as delegates at their universities offered their services as head delegates, activists came to give presentations and host discussions on climate change, local entrepreneurs offered sponsorships, a former diplomat came to discuss his experiences in diplomacy, and most of all these students supported each other. They got to know each other, though we only met once or twice a month, and became each other’s biggest allies, best cheerleaders, and strongest supporters.
After months of preparation, speeches, writing and editing positions papers, and running mock caucuses as well as history lessons and persuasive technique practice it was finally February. The month of the conference. Our delegation met two weeks in a row before it was time to depart. Speeches were finalized, notes organized and reorganized, and logistics confirmed. Our delegation left for London on February 23rd, 2022. Upon arriving at St. Pancras station, it seemed to sink in that it was finally time. We were in London, the conference was being held in person for the first time since 2020, and we were ready.
Once in London the work didn’t stop. We had two days before the conference was to begin in earnest, which gave us two days to workshop, reorganize pages and pages of notes again, and go over speeches for the last time, and then one more time. We took a break the night before the conference to attend a question-and-answer session followed by a dinner at the residence of the Belgian Ambassador to the UK. Delegations from two Belgian universities joined us to listen to the Ambassador and two diplomats discuss all kinds of topics including working as a diplomat, Brexit, Russia, the EU, and the work of the UN.
Our small amount of free time the next day before the opening ceremony was spent exploring the city, mostly looking straight up. The opening ceremony was taking place near Westminster Abbey, and the conference itself at King’s College London; both areas full of history, amazing architecture, and luckily for us blue skies and sunshine.
We then checked in and attended the opening ceremony, where our delegation was welcomed with open arms by the delegation seated in front of us: a school in the UK. I would later see our delegates speaking with those students further into the conference. The opening ceremony posed questions about the work of the UN, the effectiveness of the UN, and possible solutions to areas of weakness or inefficiency. Following the opening ceremony, the first committee meetings began. We made our way over to King’s and our delegates entered their committees for the first time. That night they would determine which issue on the agenda would be discussed first and begin applying all the skills they had honed over the last several months. We finally got to see our delegates in action. Several gave speeches, all participated in voting, and though it was initially overwhelming for a few, they rallied and planned for the next committee meetings.
It must be mentioned that we arrived in London just as Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, and the effects of this war could be felt throughout the city. There were protests, flags, discussions between delegates, and comments by the Ambassador; it was on everyone’s mind. The committees touched on it to a greater or lesser extent during their sessions, students watched the news closely, and the city united to condemn the violence. I attended two protests in support of Ukraine over the four days we were in London, and I know some of our delegates also chose to make their voices heard both in London and once we returned to Belgium. Russian and Ukrainian citizens, as well as students with family ties to the two countries, were part of the conference. This further brought the conflict to the forefront of all delegates’ minds. Witnessing the cooperation, compassion, and mutual effort from students of so many different nationalities, backgrounds, and languages during this time was extra impactful. I think our world is in good hands.
Emma Brilleslyper is a 2021-2022 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Belgium. She graduated from Texas Christian University in 2020 with bachelor’s degrees in French and Biology. Emma spent the last year taking graduate coursework at TCU and student teaching! She is incredibly excited to work inside the classroom as an ETA at Université Saint Louis and also looks forward to having more opportunities to practice her French and potentially gain some skills in Dutch!Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.