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AMUN Evolution: How We Went Virtual in 2020

An example of how the United Nations has adapted to a virtual environment.

Almost exactly one year ago I was the 2020 AMUN Secretary-General and, like many of you, full of bright hopes for 2020. The AMUN staff has a tradition of designating a light hearted internal motto to give each year an informal theme. We decide this theme in January or February of each year. And so, early on, the motto was chosen: “AMUN 2020: Now with clearer vision.” Oh, the irony. We, of course, had no clarity or vision at all about what was lurking right around the corner.

In March, it became evident that the pandemic would likely impact us here in the United States. So we prepared to shift our annual spring training meeting for Conference leaders to a virtual format. We normally hold this training over Memorial Day Weekend but in an effort to reduce Zoom fatigue we spread out the training over three weekends. This backfired on us and we ended up feeling that we should’ve just crammed the training into one instead. (Lesson learned, this year will be over just a single weekend). 

Then, in the summer, it became clearer and clearer that we wouldn’t be meeting in person over Labor Day, when we train our staff, or in November, when we traditionally hold the AMUN Conference. So we had to very rapidly convert an in-person conference into a virtual one. Converting a Model United Nations simulation into a workable online simulation isn’t as simple as copying what the United Nations was doing. When the pandemic stopped the UN from meeting, they instituted silence procedure; while ominous sounding, it’s more along the lines of “if you have any objections, make them known via email.” While this works for the actual United Nations, it wouldn’t be a very engaging or educational experience for our Representatives to email one another their draft resolutions without meaningful debate or conversation. For us, it meant that we had to examine every single process and set of assumptions–many of which had been operating since AMUN’s founding!

We went on the search for a software platform that would allow us to simulate a Model UN experience as seamlessly as we could. We landed with Gatherly, a small startup video conferencing platform that centers around conferences. Gatherly provides a map for you to “walk around” a floor that provided Representatives with a better way to simulate unmoderated caucusing than a breakout room in many of the more conventional video conferencing platforms.

As we worked, we made concessions and difficult choices, including three of the largest changes: we eliminated some of our planned simulations, we reduced the number of students per delegation to one representative per committee; and moved up the conference date to October due to many schools (nearly 40% of AMUN attendees!) changing their fall calendars. These changes definitely resulted in a smaller conference, but I also think it gave us many more focused students ready to interact with one another. 

Ultimately, the Executive Committee decided that our motto was no longer a reflection of what we wanted our theme for the year to be and we changed it to “AMUN 2020: ‘slightly’ farther than 6 feet apart.” It was fitting as we AMUN-ed from all over the country, instead of converging on Chicago. Still, the results were impressive.

This year our motto is “AMUN 2021: Can we hug yet?” And day by day, with vaccines rolling out and things opening back up, it looks like an in-person conference is a strong possibility. This is far from an announcement and the Executive Committee has not made any decisions about the Conference—the situation is too unpredictable and we are simply too far out to make those decisions. But I’m hopeful for a year that will allow us to safely see each other, this time face to face, to try to solve some of the world’s most difficult issues with diplomacy.

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