In 1991 the mother of two of my students twisted my arm to talk me into sponsoring a student exchange with a secondary school in Ivanovo, Russia, a former textile center about 300 kilometers NE of Moscow that had fallen on hard times. (Think Detroit in recent years.)
My Russian counterpart was Marina Belova who, among other duties, taught English. I suggested that if the Russian students were interested in a foreign exchange, they might also be interested in the Model United Nations program in a year or so. They were interested—NOW! (This was occurring only a couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ordinary Russians were hungry for outside contacts.)
The problem was that THIMUN (The Hague International Model United Nations) assigns countries to participating schools a year in advance. There was no way this Russian school could have a delegation NOW. But these kids were so eager to become involved, it broke my heart to see them turned way. There had to be a way . . .
Turned out there was.
There were at that time over fifteen American high schools in Germany; most of them were involved in THIMUN. My school, Ramstein American High School, already had two full delegations of 14 students each, but I knew that some other schools did not have the full complement.
However, there was another problem: money. The registration fee for THIMUN was $135 per student. Our American students did fund-raisers all year for these fees plus hotel accommodations and train fares. Remember: the Russian students came from very ordinary families in an area suffering economically. They could get to The Hague and stay with families of Russian Embassy personnel, but that was it.
I called MUN directors at other American schools. My first question was could you add a Russian student to your delegation? Oh, yes. Sure. And could your club pay the registration fee? Yes, they could do that. In the end, one school added two Russians and another took three! Those teachers and their students saw this as a great people-to-people opportunity. And it was! Just a few years after Ronald Reagan’s famous line— “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”—American teenagers were tearing down walls of a different sort.
The Ivanovo school had its own delegation the following year. After that, they promoted Model United Nations in other schools in their area and held their own conferences. Today MUN is a thriving concern in Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as Ivanovo. And several Russian schools send their own delegations to THIMUN.
Sadly, when I returned to the States, I was unable to interest any local high school principals in this truly remarkable educational program. (See my previous blog.)
But, boy! does it ever work in Russia!