Taking the Gavel Online

This year, Harvard Model UN and Harvard Model Congress conferences have gone virtual. The gavel will be replaced by the mute button, and all messages to the cute Lithuania delegate will be sent via Zoom DM.

For a few days every winter, a flurry of blazers and overpacked binders descends upon Boston. Unlike other winter storms, this one is made of Harvard Model Congress and Harvard Model United Nations delegates, high schoolers from around the world.

This year, both conferences have gone virtual. The gavel will be replaced by the mute button, and all messages to the cute Lithuania delegate will be sent via Zoom DM.

In a typical year, HMC and HMUN welcome thousands of delegates to Boston for multiple days of making speeches, writing bills, and vying for best delegate. They gather together in committees for hours drafting proposals and legislation, all under the guidance and gavel-banging of Harvard undergraduate staffers.

This year, the leaders of these conferences are uncertain about how interested high school students will be in attending. Harvard Model Congress Co-President Aidan M. Keenan ’22 says he acknowledges the difficulties of planning for this year’s conference: “It was kind of hard to judge how many students we would expect to come because we’ve never had this sort of situation before, so we plotted out a bunch of different ways that could go.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced conferences to adapt to a virtual setting, HMUN planned to reduce the size of this year’s committees. Under-Secretary General of Administration Bryce G. Kim ’22 stresses that it was the constraints of an online format and not waning participant interest that necessitated the change. “As much as we’d like to have a 300 to 350 person committee room, it isn’t really replicable on Zoom,” he says.

Kim says that the online conferences will have no choice but to confront Zoom fatigue, an experience with which participants are likely familiar from online classes. A typical HMC committee session can take up to four hours at a time. This year, HMC has decreased the number of committee meetings and expanded their seminar program, in which staffers dive into topics of their choice with a small group of delegates. Keenan hopes that the variety and intimacy brought to the conference by the seminar program will help keep delegates engaged.

When it comes to committee themes, HMUN is also intent on addressing a wide variety of issues rather than zeroing in on the pandemic. The conference’s overall theme, however, screams COVID-19: “Informed Action in Times of Crisis.” Kim explains that the theme is meant to inspire delegates given the challenges posed by the pandemic and the increasing agency of young people. “We wanted to issue that challenge and motivate our delegates,” he says.

Without the costs of a physical space and other in-person necessities like refreshments between sessions, both conferences have decreased, and in certain cases, even eliminated fees. For HMC, lower expenses per delegate allows them to expand their scholarship program. HMUN also plans on continuing its financial aid program. Registration remains in its early stages, so Kim says it is still too soon to tell how changes to fees will affect delegate participation.

Despite attempts to maintain the feel of past conferences, the virtual experience will likely differ from the one students are accustomed to. Online platforms are notoriously structured: Breakout rooms must be assigned and prompted, and pressing the “end meeting” button leaves delegates scattered in their hometowns across the country. Yet Kim says unstructured time is a key component of the conferences. Delegates use this time to plan proposals and discuss takeaways from committees. Equally important is the social aspect, which is even more reliant on time outside of official meetings. While the conferences are looking into ways to replicate this experience, no online platform can perfectly recreate it.

But not all changes are negative. “Given the nature of COVID and being able to have a lot more conversations with the [high school] faculty members, I was able to see...ways [the program] can be improved,” says Halle C. Clottey ’23, HMC’s director of mentoring. The mentoring program seeks to give students who may not otherwise be able to attend HMC the knowledge and skills to succeed at the conference. Clottey says her conversations with high school teachers have led to the creation of an identity-focused panel for mentorship students — predominantly students of color — to ask questions about navigating predominantly white HMC spaces. Clottey hopes it will help increase students’ confidence and give them the tools for success beyond public speaking and parliamentary procedure.

The changes raise questions about accessibility. Decreases in fees and travel times may allow schools to take part for the first time. “This unique environment hopefully will allow us to present HMUN to a broader audience,” Kim says. “[They] might have easier access to a conference where they might not have if they were being forced to travel to Boston in January.”

Clottey worries that Zoom may not be the great equalizer some make it out to be, however. “I think in some ways, having an in-person conference levels the playing field since everybody is in that same physical environment,” she says. “Everybody is able to engage in one physical space without having to worry about, ‘oh, is my mom or one of my siblings going to run in in the middle of me giving a speech’ or ‘is my internet going to cut off in the middle of me trying to write a bill.’”

A virtual conference will hopefully be a one-time event. Some changes made this year, however, might work their way into future in-person conferences. “We’re always trying to improve upon ourselves, and we’ll take away any lessons from this year and apply them to future years,” Keenan says.