Farrah Bergstrom looks forward to participating in Model United Nations all year. So the Wayzata High School junior was understandably bummed when a statewide version of the program was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. But Bergstrom, 17, wasn’t about to give up the chance to engage in global politics with her peers. She joined forces with fellow teen Model U.N. enthusiasts to stage a virtual conference instead. The idea came to fruition April 17, when hundreds of teens from across the globe were expected to sign on for “DiscMUN,” a two-day assembly planned by students. Ahead of the gathering, Bergstrom shared her story of organizing an international, 100% online meeting in a matter of weeks and what she hopes others can learn from the experience.
Q: For those unfamiliar with Model U.N., can you describe how it usually works?
A: We really try to recreate a simulation of the United Nations as realistically as possible. In conferences I’ve done in the past, we’ve had an International Court of Justice and we’ve had a General Assembly, all the different organs the United Nations entails. We debate international issues [and] the courts will give decisions on conflicts between different countries. It’s an interesting experience for people who are interested in global politics.
Q: How did the idea of staging a virtual conference come about?
A: I have a friend, Thomas. We did a Yale Young [Global] Scholars program together. I follow him on Instagram and I saw him put on his [Instagram] story, “Hey, all, the Model U.N. conferences are getting canceled, if you want to put on an online conference just message me.” And so I did. We really all got together through social media, which has been different than anything I’ve done in the past.
Q: How many people signed up?
A: Around 250. We have people from Eastern Europe, Canada, a few from Latin America. I’ve been getting messages from people who’ve registered and said, “It’s going to be 3 a.m. for me, but I’m going to be up and ready to go.”
Q: Wow! Were you surprised by the response?
A: I was so surprised. We started hitting 100 people registered. Then we started hitting 150, 190, then we hit 200 and I was like, “Wow, that’s crazy.” I had no idea we were going to reach this many people. I think my generation sometimes gets a bad rap about not being motivated and not wanting to really put in the work. This speaks to the fact that we are willing to put in the work and we are able to adapt.
Q: What were the biggest challenges in putting this on?
A: Time differences, for sure. And we didn’t expect to grow so much in numbers. I’m seeing firsthand what it takes to really put on a conference. I’ve totally gained a new respect for the people who put on these conferences for us.
Q: The agenda includes various topics [such as creating a new, U.N.-like body, debris in outer space and control of the Arctic]. How did you decide what to discuss?
A: Because COVID-19 is so present in all of our lives, we really wanted to take peoples’ minds off [the virus]. We really tried to keep in mind that [coronavirus is] blasted on the news, you see it everywhere. We wanted to relieve people of that.
Q: How did you get involved in Model U.N., what is the draw?
A: I started Model U.N. back in 2019, [through Minnesota YMCA’s] Youth in Government program. I represented France that year. This year, I joined my school’s Model U.N. [club and] we went to other conferences. My mom’s an immigrant from Iran and my dad does a lot of public policy, so I was interested in the debate, but also learning about foreign issues. What really attracted me to it [was] getting involved in a more global community and a more global mind-set.
Q: How did you feel when you heard the in-person conference was canceled here?
A: I was upset. I’ve made a lot of friends from all over the state through [the program]. These conferences are one of the few chances I get to see them in person. I know this really is for the collective good and keeping everybody healthy. I know that’s important. But for a lot of us, [Model U.N.] isn’t completely about debate. It’s getting to be with our friends and being able to learn about foreign policy and law. I think channeling that disappointment into a way to still be able to do those things was really part of this [DiscMUN idea].
Q: What do you hope student delegates take away from this virtual experience?
A: This gives students a really unique opportunity to connect with people from all over. It shows that even though we’re all going through a global crisis, we’re still able to get together and we can still do the things we enjoy. I hope it brings people closer. We may be apart physically, but we’re still doing this together.
Q: Do you think this could be a model for future Model U.N. conferences or other high school activities and traditions postponed due to the pandemic?
A: I hope that it really sets the precedent that our stuff all got canceled, but we’re still taking the initiative to put this on. And I would hope that it sends this message that just because we can’t physically be there doesn’t mean we’re going to stop doing it. I would hope that we continue doing this even after [COVID-19] because I think it provides something really unique you can’t always have access to.