Lee Marcus, a major figure in Model U.N. programs on...

Lee Marcus, a major figure in Model U.N. programs on Long Island, will be honored by the state Assembly in April. He is shown in his Floral Park apartment on Wednesday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Lee Marcus knew nothing about Model U.N. conferences and competitions when a school administrator barged into the Advanced Placement social studies class he was teaching at Elmont Memorial High School that morning in 1978, waving an application — asking Marcus if he’d like to take students to compete in Washington, D.C.

Marcus said yes.

Little did he know how much he and his students didn’t know about the United Nations, Model U.N. competitions, or how the world works.

Parliamentary procedure? He and his Elmont kids had no clue.

Roll call? Setting the agenda? Points? Yields? Caucusing? Submitting a resolution? Nope.

“I saw a group totally unprepared,” Marcus, 84, of Floral Park, recalled this week. “We were overwhelmed; we were lost. And what I also saw was what my students would eventually be competing with in the real world once they got to college, once they entered the job market. … And, I saw the potential of how we could change that.”

More than 45 years removed from that eye-opening moment at Georgetown University, a team from Elmont marked the latest in a long list of accomplishments for Model U.N. delegations from the five high schools in the Sewanhaka Central High School District: its members secured seven committee awards earlier this month at the international Model U.N. conference at the University of California at Berkeley.

Representing the interests of Botswana, Malawi, Bosnia and Herzegovina, India, Zambia, Romania, the Bahamas and Brunei, Elmont students developed resolutions for a wide range of complex issues. Those included the economic crisis in Venezuela, vigilante violence in global conflicts and combating foreign aid dependency in a post-COVID-19 pandemic world.

They earned best delegate and best school awards.

Officials said the success was a tribute to the legacy established by Marcus, who retired in 2003, and who next month will be honored by the New York State Assembly for his accomplishments as a longtime educator at Elmont and New Hyde Park high schools.

“The Model U.N. program here started as the little engine that could — and, now, we’re a leader of the pack,” Sewanhaka school district Superintendent Thomas Dolan said. “That certainly is attributable to the work of Lee Marcus. … Lee is a force of energy. Lee is a presence."

“When it comes to Model U.N. here, Lee is revered.”

How revered?

On April 6, the five district high schools — Elmont, New Hyde Park, Floral Park, H. Frank Carey and Sewanhaka — will compete in the 30th Annual Intra-School District Model U.N. Conference at Carey in Franklin Square. The event is now called the Lee Marcus Invitational.

“Who’d have thunk it?” Marcus said.

Born in the Bronx, raised in Little Neck, Queens, educated at Van Buren High School, Adelphi University and St. John’s University, Marcus began teaching at Stanforth Junior High in Elmont in 1962, moving to Elmont High School in 1970. After the dismal showing in that first Model U.N. competition, Marcus immersed himself — and his students — in the workings of the U.N., a delegation from Elmont securing its first honorable mention in 1980, its first best delegation award in 1983.

In 1990, a 12-member squad from Elmont, with students who were African American, Italian American, Colombian and Filipino, earned one of just four awards at an international Model U.N. competition in The Hague — in a field of 160 schools from 29 countries.

For much of its existence, Model U.N. conferences have involved collegiate programs and, at the high school level, mostly students from elite private, prep and parochial schools but relatively few public schools. Team members select the nations they will represent at a conference then, as Marcus explained, immerse themselves in the real-world issues facing those countries — including economic, environmental, cultural and political issues. Because of that, Marcus said he always had his kids pick underrepresented nations among U.N. member states, which now include 193 countries. Large, powerful economic superpowers — the United States, China, Russia — held sway, he said.

“I wanted my kids to understand what smaller countries go through,” he said. “That when you raise your placard as the United States, you get one reaction. But that when you represent the Nigerian delegation or some other smaller delegation, you don’t have as much wherewithal.”

Over the years, Elmont has argued the interests of a host of such nations at conferences, representing, among others: Mauritius, Malta, Bolivia, Burundi, Togo and even Libya. To help his students understand the political challenges of each, Marcus even arranged visits to the U.N. in Manhattan, having his kids meet with delegates from the nations they would represent — sometimes, even having those delegates help prep his team for a conference or competition.

“One year we represented Libya and when I called, officials there laughed at me,” Marcus said. “I called every other day until finally they agreed to meet us. There were armed guards, everything. But, we got our meeting.”

Marcus believes the Model U.N. preparation greatly helped students in what is a heavily diverse, working-class and immigrant district gain footing with their prep, parochial and private school competitors.

Data supplied by the Sewanhaka district shows 38 languages — and, more than 70 countries — represented among the student population of the five high schools. Among those nations: Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Venezuela, Suriname, Haiti, Qatar, Lebanon, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Egypt, South Africa, Senegal, Ethiopia, Greece, Portugal, China, India, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Iran, and even Nepal and Tibet. 

Over the years, Model U.N. students from district schools have gone on to some of the best colleges in America, including the Ivy League.

Current Elmont Assistant Principal Dayna Sotirhos was a member of the 1993 team, where she competed against — and made friends with — Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Hillary and then-President Bill Clinton. Current Elmont Model U.N. adviser Nkenge W. Gilliam, who has run the school’s club since 1998, learned the intricacies of the program when Marcus served as district coordinator. And current Elmont Model U.N. president Madison Omega is bound this fall for the University of Southern California — due, in large part, she said, to all she’s learned from competitions.

She first became interested in Model U.N. as a third grader at Dutch Broadway Elementary School.

Yes, the Model U.N. program extends to the elementary schools in the Elmont Union Free School District, which feeds the high schools.

“Before, I was super shy,” Omega said. “I didn’t know how to find my voice. What Model U.N. taught me was confidence. It also taught me how to do research, how to prepare, how to network.”

For his part, Marcus said he was thankful for the continued success of the Model U.N. program he built from the ground up in the district.

But, he also admitted he’s “not a fan” of the real U.N.

Why is that?

“I think,” he said, “because unlike Model U.N., the way the United Nations is set up makes it impossible for real-world problems to get solved. … What I love about Model U.N. is you get to know what it’s like to live in other people’s shoes, what they experience, what they go through, and maybe you get to understand their lives. We don’t do enough of that in the real world, understand how other people live, what they go through, why they think like they do. Model U.N. teaches that.

“And I think our kids are better for it.”

Lee Marcus knew nothing about Model U.N. conferences and competitions when a school administrator barged into the Advanced Placement social studies class he was teaching at Elmont Memorial High School that morning in 1978, waving an application — asking Marcus if he’d like to take students to compete in Washington, D.C.

Marcus said yes.

Little did he know how much he and his students didn’t know about the United Nations, Model U.N. competitions, or how the world works.

Parliamentary procedure? He and his Elmont kids had no clue.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Lee Marcus, who initiated the Model U.N. program in the Sewanhaka district, will be honored by the New York State Assembly for his accomplishments as a longtime educator at Elmont and New Hyde Park high schools.
  • A team from Elmont earned best delegate and best school awards for Model U.N. delegations earlier this month at the international Model U.N. conference at the University of California at Berkeley.
  • Model U.N. students from Long Island schools have gone on to some of the best colleges in America, including the Ivy League.

Roll call? Setting the agenda? Points? Yields? Caucusing? Submitting a resolution? Nope.

“I saw a group totally unprepared,” Marcus, 84, of Floral Park, recalled this week. “We were overwhelmed; we were lost. And what I also saw was what my students would eventually be competing with in the real world once they got to college, once they entered the job market. … And, I saw the potential of how we could change that.”

More than 45 years removed from that eye-opening moment at Georgetown University, a team from Elmont marked the latest in a long list of accomplishments for Model U.N. delegations from the five high schools in the Sewanhaka Central High School District: its members secured seven committee awards earlier this month at the international Model U.N. conference at the University of California at Berkeley.

Representing the interests of Botswana, Malawi, Bosnia and Herzegovina, India, Zambia, Romania, the Bahamas and Brunei, Elmont students developed resolutions for a wide range of complex issues. Those included the economic crisis in Venezuela, vigilante violence in global conflicts and combating foreign aid dependency in a post-COVID-19 pandemic world.

They earned best delegate and best school awards.

Officials said the success was a tribute to the legacy established by Marcus, who retired in 2003, and who next month will be honored by the New York State Assembly for his accomplishments as a longtime educator at Elmont and New Hyde Park high schools.

Marcus 'revered' for Model UN

“The Model U.N. program here started as the little engine that could — and, now, we’re a leader of the pack,” Sewanhaka school district Superintendent Thomas Dolan said. “That certainly is attributable to the work of Lee Marcus. … Lee is a force of energy. Lee is a presence."

“When it comes to Model U.N. here, Lee is revered.”

How revered?

On April 6, the five district high schools — Elmont, New Hyde Park, Floral Park, H. Frank Carey and Sewanhaka — will compete in the 30th Annual Intra-School District Model U.N. Conference at Carey in Franklin Square. The event is now called the Lee Marcus Invitational.

“Who’d have thunk it?” Marcus said.

Born in the Bronx, raised in Little Neck, Queens, educated at Van Buren High School, Adelphi University and St. John’s University, Marcus began teaching at Stanforth Junior High in Elmont in 1962, moving to Elmont High School in 1970. After the dismal showing in that first Model U.N. competition, Marcus immersed himself — and his students — in the workings of the U.N., a delegation from Elmont securing its first honorable mention in 1980, its first best delegation award in 1983.

In 1990, a 12-member squad from Elmont, with students who were African American, Italian American, Colombian and Filipino, earned one of just four awards at an international Model U.N. competition in The Hague — in a field of 160 schools from 29 countries.

For much of its existence, Model U.N. conferences have involved collegiate programs and, at the high school level, mostly students from elite private, prep and parochial schools but relatively few public schools. Team members select the nations they will represent at a conference then, as Marcus explained, immerse themselves in the real-world issues facing those countries — including economic, environmental, cultural and political issues. Because of that, Marcus said he always had his kids pick underrepresented nations among U.N. member states, which now include 193 countries. Large, powerful economic superpowers — the United States, China, Russia — held sway, he said.

“I wanted my kids to understand what smaller countries go through,” he said. “That when you raise your placard as the United States, you get one reaction. But that when you represent the Nigerian delegation or some other smaller delegation, you don’t have as much wherewithal.”

Over the years, Elmont has argued the interests of a host of such nations at conferences, representing, among others: Mauritius, Malta, Bolivia, Burundi, Togo and even Libya. To help his students understand the political challenges of each, Marcus even arranged visits to the U.N. in Manhattan, having his kids meet with delegates from the nations they would represent — sometimes, even having those delegates help prep his team for a conference or competition.

“One year we represented Libya and when I called, officials there laughed at me,” Marcus said. “I called every other day until finally they agreed to meet us. There were armed guards, everything. But, we got our meeting.”

Marcus believes the Model U.N. preparation greatly helped students in what is a heavily diverse, working-class and immigrant district gain footing with their prep, parochial and private school competitors.

Data supplied by the Sewanhaka district shows 38 languages — and, more than 70 countries — represented among the student population of the five high schools. Among those nations: Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Venezuela, Suriname, Haiti, Qatar, Lebanon, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Egypt, South Africa, Senegal, Ethiopia, Greece, Portugal, China, India, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Iran, and even Nepal and Tibet. 

Participants go to best colleges

Over the years, Model U.N. students from district schools have gone on to some of the best colleges in America, including the Ivy League.

Current Elmont Assistant Principal Dayna Sotirhos was a member of the 1993 team, where she competed against — and made friends with — Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Hillary and then-President Bill Clinton. Current Elmont Model U.N. adviser Nkenge W. Gilliam, who has run the school’s club since 1998, learned the intricacies of the program when Marcus served as district coordinator. And current Elmont Model U.N. president Madison Omega is bound this fall for the University of Southern California — due, in large part, she said, to all she’s learned from competitions.

She first became interested in Model U.N. as a third grader at Dutch Broadway Elementary School.

Yes, the Model U.N. program extends to the elementary schools in the Elmont Union Free School District, which feeds the high schools.

“Before, I was super shy,” Omega said. “I didn’t know how to find my voice. What Model U.N. taught me was confidence. It also taught me how to do research, how to prepare, how to network.”

For his part, Marcus said he was thankful for the continued success of the Model U.N. program he built from the ground up in the district.

But, he also admitted he’s “not a fan” of the real U.N.

Why is that?

“I think,” he said, “because unlike Model U.N., the way the United Nations is set up makes it impossible for real-world problems to get solved. … What I love about Model U.N. is you get to know what it’s like to live in other people’s shoes, what they experience, what they go through, and maybe you get to understand their lives. We don’t do enough of that in the real world, understand how other people live, what they go through, why they think like they do. Model U.N. teaches that.

“And I think our kids are better for it.”

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