The Oberlin Stories Project

On joining Model United Nations at Oberlin

Katherine Sicienski ’12

“By allowing one to take classes in English, environmental studies, history, and theater, all in one semester, Oberlin encourages students to develop new ways of thinking about the same problem.”

Four panelists facing the audience

When I came to Oberlin, I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted to study. In high school, I had embraced my nerdiness and talent for mathematics by competing as a Mathlete, and upon my arrival at Oberlin, I immediately enrolled in multivariable calculus. But I kept a diverse first semester schedule (aided by the flexible requirements at Oberlin) and enrolled in Introduction to Theater Arts, Charismatic Leaders in History, Introduction to Environmental Studies, and a first-year seminar called Campaigns and Elections. Suddenly my desire to major in mathematics disappeared, and by halfway through the semester, I knew I would major in politics.

In January of my second year, I completed a winter term with the politics department’s Congressional Internship program, interning in Washington in the office of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). During that year, I discovered the concentration in international politics and stumbled across a way to include my nerdy passion for international norms and institutions outside the classroom. Emma LaChance ’13 had just reinstated Oberlin College Model United Nations (Oberlin MUN), and it was a perfect fit. While still a relatively small club, we have had the chance to participate at national conferences and meet every week to discuss international events.

In April 2011, six members (myself included) traveled to Chicago for the annual University of Chicago Model UN (ChoMUN). This was definitely not your traditional conference (either for high school or college level), nor what one would expect after hearing a description of Model UN. There were no stuffy speeches, no United Nations General Assembly, or speakers’ lists; ChoMUN is a historical crisis conference. Participants portray such figures as the chief financial officer of the New York Times or members of a Venetian council in constant communication and competition with the city of Florence.

I was assigned the role of Marian Kukiel, the minister of defense for the World War II-era Polish Government-in-Exile, which helped the Polish Home Army’s resistance efforts in Warsaw in 1944.

As committee started, it was clear that there would be no long protracted debates: decisions were required as we captured a tank (rigged to explode, it would end up killing 100 civilians), faced a massive food shortage (resolved after receiving a Nazi informant who gave us information on the weaknesses in the protection of a Nazi wheat supply), and found our civilian population and Home Army cornered between the Nazi and Soviet lines (we were eventually forced to choose the lesser of two evils and give in to Soviet control). Unexpected twists and turns in plot and events could hardly be prepared for prior to the committee, and I watched other ‘Ministers’ and ‘Colonels’ stall as their pre-planned actions became obsolete.

But as some found themselves up against barriers, I realized that this is what my Oberlin education had been preparing me for. Critical thinking, especially concerning events outside of one’s immediate expertise, is something Oberlin strives to impart. By allowing one to take classes in English, environmental studies, history, and theater, all in one semester, Oberlin encourages students to develop new ways of thinking about the same problem. It also gives the ability to quickly process and see all sides to a potential conflict — which I am sure was the reason for the Oberlin Model UN delegation’s success at ChoMUN. Two of our members received ‘Honorable Delegate’ awards for their outstanding performance in committee, and this was only our first appearance at such a conference.

If I expected to return to lectures and memorization, I probably would have had a hard time returning to Oberlin. But Oberlin, like Model UN, is designed to engage you in learning, by both helping you think and allowing you to embrace the (whatever nerdy) passion you discover.