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Model United Nations class emulates World Health Organization during coronavirus pandemic

Matthew Koutz spent his Friday afternoon trying to get hotel and travel refunds for the trip to New York City he had planned for his students. 

On March 12 the National Model United Nations Conference, which gathers more than 5,000 university students (more than half from outside the United States) was canceled due to travel restrictions. 

The conference hasn't been canceled since World War II.

Koutz is the faculty adviser for the Model United Nations program, a class in the political science department where students role-play as delegates from a member state of the United Nations. The material trains students to attend a regional or national Model UN conference every semester. Students draft speeches, position papers, learn the parliamentary rules and procedures that are practiced at the UN and hold practice simulations.

"The conference being canceled completely turned the class upside down. In fact, 25% of the final grade is attending the conference," Koutz said.

The class was supposed to be acting as Armenia at the New York conference. The students prepared their research weeks ahead of time in anticipation for competing with others around the world. 

Students represent Afghanistan at the Fall 2019 Regional Model United Nations conference in Chicago.

Koutz needed to create a new curriculum, fast.

"I knew if we were going to do something it should not only reflect the spirit of the United Nations but also have some components of civic responsibility," Koutz said.

Instead of echoing the UN General Assembly, the students will zoom in on the World Health Organization, which has been at the forefront of advising global leaders on the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's not much of a transition for students to imitate the UN general assembly then the World Health Organization," Koutz said. "We're producing something useful that wasn't in the syllabus but mirrors a lot of what we do in the class." 

One assignment is to develop a PowerPoint that will summarize what the WHO's response should be to the COVID-19 pandemic. This ranges from epidemiology to finances to coalition building and logistics. The class will also create an informational pamphlet about COVID-19, including what it is and how to prevent or contain the spread of it.  

Koutz said he hopes this pamphlet can be distributed to educate more people about how to protect themselves.

"I like the assignments. It allows us to take a more real-world approach to what's going on and actually understand what's going on instead of staying in with the mass hysteria that many others are experiencing," Wisconsin junior, Alexis Holstead said. 

As of today, the WHO has built coalitions, produced educational materials and fundraised for individuals, corporations and institutions alike.

As head delegate, Hamburg senior Wyatt Shoner works with Koutz to organize class material and monitor other students, similar to a teaching assistant position.

"The cancellation of NMUN this year has definitely shaken up the structure of the class. All the assignments that we have worked on so far have been in preparation for us sitting in committee,"  Shoner said. "When I first found out the conference was canceled, I was very disappointed. This would have been my last MUN conference"

Instead of spending a weekend in New York, the students will spend the rest of the semester at home. But their commitment to understanding global affairs remains consistent. The class meets virtually on Tuesdays using WebEx and exchanges messages on GroupMe. Holstead said the class is like a family.

"This just shows the resilience of students," Koutz said. "I was nervous because this is such an in-person course. I was wondering how we could facilitate the same spirit as before spring break. The level of dedication is really great to see."

Political Science 353: Model United Nations is available for any major and any class standing. For more information, contact the Political Science Department Chair David Jesuit at