June 08, 2023 | Matt Kucinski

A group of eight students posing together at sunset with Hollywood sign and mountains in backdrop.
The Calvin Model UN club finished in the top 10 at LAMUN, the West Coast’s top-ranked collegiate Model UN conference in Los Angeles, California.

Taheer Alibhai has ambitions of working with an NGO, doing embassy work, and even one day “ending up at the UN.”

While that may seem like a big dream for the rising senior at Calvin University, Alibhai is paving his path there.

Over the last two years, alongside fellow student leaders Adham Rishmawi and Bear De Boo, Alibhai, a double major in international relations and business, is co-leading Calvin’s Model UN club to compete at the highest of levels.

Competing with the Ivy leagues

In fall 2022, the team finished third out of 103 teams at the American Model United Nations Conference in Chicago, Illinois. In spring 2023, Calvin finished within the top 10 at LAMUN, the West Coast’s top-ranked collegiate Model UN conference in Los Angeles, California.

“Calvin is finishing near the top in these competitions that feature Ivy league schools and large state universities,” said Joel Westra, associate professor of politics at Calvin, who is also the team’s faculty adviser.

Westra says what’s most impressive is that Model UN is operated as a student-run organization at Calvin unlike at other institutions where Model UN is offered as a class for credit. So, Calvin’s success is both a credit to the work ethic put in by the students and to the core principles built into a Calvin education.

“They work hard on training and practice, developing an understanding of the country or countries they are representing, gaining an understanding of the processes within the UN for the simulation, and also developing the skills in speech and debate to apply that understanding well in the simulation,” said Westra.

Equipped for global engagement

“Calvin shows us how to think about the concepts, how to approach a situation where people don’t necessarily agree with you,” said Alibhai. “At Calvin, I’m able to find people I connect with from all over the world, all with different opinions, and I’m learning what their cultures are like.”

This ability to work across “party and cultural lines” is becoming a more and more in-demand competency in a fractured and divided world. Cynthia Slagter, the director of off-campus programs at Calvin University, says it’s why understanding global regions and cultures is core to a Calvin education.

“At Calvin, students will develop a set of intercultural competencies grounded in respect and curiosity. It’s this idea that one develops the ability to interact competently and sensitively with others from around the globe,” said Slagter.

“Calvin helps you learn how to think in a more diverse space,” said Alibhai. “In international relations, we are learning how different countries operate in the system, how they work together, these broad concepts you can see at Model UN … In Chicago, for example, when you have South Korea and North Korea both present, they will never work together, so how do you have them at the same table?”

Standing out with soft skills

“Through all of our programs we are always trying to facilitate and encourage co-curricular opportunities so students can take and apply their knowledge and skills, sharpen, direct, and focus them,” said Westra. “Through Model UN, the students are engaged in a wide range of global issues, simulating diplomacy around those issues, gaining an appreciation for the challenge of getting States to cooperate to solve problems, and developing the skills to help those States come together in those areas.”

While students at Calvin are certainly learning about other countries, cultures, and contexts, they are also being prepared with the soft skills necessary to communicate and problem solve. And this was on clear display in Chicago, when two Calvin students, Justus Young and Abigail Ham ‘23 were among a select few from the 103 schools represented to earn outstanding delegate awards on their subcommittees.

“The chair in the room found that these participants worked the best, were the clearest in communicating, and most helpful in forming their resolution. To achieve this honor, it involves writing a resolution, speaking for it, and lobbying others,” said Alibhai.

“Our classrooms are discussion-based, professors are asking questions and challenging students to think on their feet, to be able to form good arguments as they speak, but also as they write. It’s the combination of knowledge and skills that situate our students well, and then they put in the effort to build on that,” said Westra.

Invited to premiere competitions

The Model UN team now looks to build on their success by taking to the international stage. The team heads to Grenoble, France later this month for a competition where they will be required to engage in diplomacy in both English and French. Then, in Spring 2024, the team is set to participate in the New York meeting, which is considered the premiere UN Model meeting in the world.

“I’m glad they’ve worked to put themselves in position to have these opportunities, and I’m confident they’ll do well in them,” said Westra.

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