April 02, 2024 | Matt Kucinski

A group of students at New York's Model UN.
In late March, ten students from Calvin University participated in the Model UN competition in New York City.

“I want to do something that has an international impact,” said Lathan VanderLeest. “And I feel like what I’ve been doing so far is preparing me quite well.”

VanderLeest (Lynden, Wash.) is only in his second year at Calvin University, but he’s already gained a lot of experience on the world’s stage through Model UN. This past week, the premier meeting of the international student organization took place in New York, NY and attracted 180 schools from around the world.

“We had Germans, Egyptians, Canadians, Italians, Venezuelans, Argentinians, you had people from all over, even from China,” said VanderLeest.

VanderLeest, a political science major, was one of ten students from Calvin to participate in this premier event. He says the goal for participants is to work on resolutions that they then try to get passed in working together toward a multifaceted solution.

Impressing the judges

Two Calvin students stand, one holding a sign that says Saint Lucia on it.
George Holmes and Lathan Vander Leest worked together at the Model UN competition in New York City.

The issue VanderLeest and his Calvin partner on the committee George Holmes worked on is reducing rural poverty in accordance with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The two began in separate groups but worked to facilitate conversations between the two groups to bring them together.

“Once they were together, we took control of the new, larger group of 40 or 50 people and really ran it,” said VanderLeest.

The work that VanderLeest and Holmes did as well as the other eight Calvin students, which included Taheer Alibhai, Adham Rishmawi, Justus Young, Rosalind (Rosie) Niemeier, Garrett Mowry, Ngicha Kilewo, Alexander (Alex) Shier, and Katherine (Kate) Witvliet) impressed the event judges so much that the Calvin team was one of just 35 schools (of the 180 represented) to earn the Distinguished Delegation Award.

“I think what makes someone successful at Model UN is their ability to navigate the social situation that forms and also help shape that,” said VanderLeest. “If you’re good at listening to people, getting people to engage with you, and wanting to work with you, then you’ll do quite well. You don’t want to be the loudest person in the room.”

Equipped to succeed

These skills and competencies are ones VanderLeest says are cultivated at Calvin.

“Calvin has taught me these skills and I’ve seen that modeled through my classes. There’s not an attitude of strife between professors when talking about very difficult issues and my classmates are receptive to me, they want to learn alongside me,” said VanderLeest. “And so, I think Calvin’s created a good atmosphere and that translates well into Model UN success.”

While Model UN success is important to VanderLeest, it’s because he sees it as training ground for what he wants to do next—pursue something with international implications.

Pursuing a deep-rooted passion

“I’ve looked into various government organizations, the State Department, CIA, FBI, things like that as well as being an investigator for the UN,” said VanderLeest of some of his career options. “I also have given the military some thought too, not as a career, but as something to give back to my country. And I’ve also thought about going into journalism and reporting, particularly conflict reporting.”

While VanderLeest has a lot of ideas about what he wants to do next, he’s confident he's pursuing his passion.

“I do come from a military tradition. My dad served in Iraq, his dad in Vietnam, and then my great grandfather in World War II,” said VanderLeest, “and I’ve always been very in tune with the historical situation of my family each time. I’ve always enjoyed military history, and you know most military situations play out on the international sphere. I find myself going to where I feel the stakes are, where there’s real conflict … and that’s what Model UN has given me, an outlet to focus on the international sphere and international order.”

Paying it forward

And now with several senior leaders in Model UN graduating, VanderLeest is being tasked in 2024-2025 with leading the group. He’ll put together some local and regional opportunities for competition and is excited to return with a team to New York next spring.

“You get to go to the actual UN, you get to sit in the General Assembly, you are able to meet a lot of interesting people. They have great speakers and great job fairs,” said VanderLeest of his New York Model UN experience. “The experience with Model UN has been a great opportunity for me, and I want other people to have the same options that I’ve had.”

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