Four Belmont secondary students, decked out in their best business attire and armed with a stack of notes and as much knowledge as they could cram into their minds, prepared to become delegates representing real countries in a mock United Nations assembly.
Ivan Vinatzer (Israel), Martina Pittroff (Denmark), Kylie Milne (Spain) and Cam McMicken (Moldova) represented Belmont recently at the Vancouver Model UN conference, the largest high school-run gathering of its kind in North America.
The Belmont students joined those from two other public schools on the Island and a handful of private schools at the event, which drew more than 1,100 students from across Canada, Oregon, Washington, California, Japan and Korea.
“It was probably the best weekend of my life,” said Pittroff. “It was a really great experience.”
The 16-year-old joined the group at a friend’s request, but now can’t wait for the next event. “It’s not what you’d expect,” she said. “I think when people first hear about it, they get the wrong impression.”
Pittroff said often students have preconceived notions about what a model UN conference is like, including such visions as private school students reigning over those from public schools.
But the delegates support each other as they work on their public speaking, she said. And while people are often nervous at first, the more speeches they give, the easier it becomes.
Vinatzer, an 18-year-old Italian exchange student, said, “It’s quite an amazing feeling to get up there and talk … you look up and 150 people are staring at you.”
He said the conference was “the highlight of my experience in Canada.”
Vinatzer was the recipient of the outstanding delegate award for the UN General Assembly disarmament and international security committee.
He and the rest of the students had their skills and knowledge put to the test, with negotiations that ran late into the night.
They were even pulled from their beds for a midnight crisis scenario involving peacekeepers killing underage protesters in Sudan. They had to work with other countries to come up with policies to help remedy the situation.
It took “collaboration and compromise” to reach those solutions, Vinatzer said, and a lot of debating.
But, as Pittroff noted, there was a no-Internet policy, so delegates had to communicate with each other the old fashioned way: by passing paper notes.
That policy also meant students could not look up their country’s stance on a particular issue, they could only refer to the hard copy of notes they had with them. They also had to put their own views aside and promote the interests of the country they were representing.
“It is really challenging to put away your own opinions, especially if you’re really passionate about a subject,” Pittroff said. “You had to think on the spot.”
While the pair said everyone was exhausted by the end of the weekend, it was worth it.
“It was an amazing experience,” Vinatzer said. While he’s not sure what career path he’d like to take, he said, “I like this kind of atmosphere and I would like a career where this atmosphere is promoted.”
Pittroff has her sights set on becoming a neurologist or environmental lawyer. But experiences like the conference make her want to travel more and see the world.
Vinatzer, a self-proclaimed “citizen of the world,” said often students will be discouraged from joining model UN because they don’t like politics or don’t believe that world events directly impact them.
But he said it’s important to know what’s going on around the globe, and the conference was a great opportunity to learn more. “It opens your eyes; not just the conference but the whole preparation (for it).”
The Belmont students meet every Thursday at lunch to practice and prepare for upcoming events, with a lot of extra hours put in after school to learn more and write position papers.
They thanked their teacher-advisor, Evelyn Amado for the opportunity.
“If it wasn’t for her, we would not have left the school,” Vinatzer said. Pittroff added the school also made it possible for them to go by helping with some of the cost.
Amado, meanwhile, was delighted with her students.
“They worked so hard,” she said. “It was very intense for the kids.”
She noted they held their own going up against some of the top private schools on the Island and mainland. “They conducted themselves with such decorum. They won the respect of others.”
And Vinatzer’s award? Well, she said that was just the icing on the cake.