When Leanna Faulk looks back on the 10 days she spent in Beijing with her fellow members of Elmont Memorial High School’s Model United Nations team, there are two moments, she says, she will never forget.
The rising sophomore recalled standing atop one of the “Seven Wonders of the World,” the Great Wall of China, taking in the sight of the entire countryside with her friends. That experience can only be topped, she said, by the moment her team learned they won “Best Small Delegation” at the WE Model United Nations Conference, one of the largest international competitions of its kind.
“That really helped to put Elmont on the map and show we are this great school,” said Faulk, 14, of North Valley Stream.
Elmont was one of three teams from the United States that participated in the invitation-only conference that ran from July 31 to Aug. 4 in Beijing. They competed against 1,500 students from 22 different countries.
Although the team had been invited to the conference in the past, they decided to attend for the first time after their principal, John Capozzi, encouraged them to do so. Capozzi said he wanted “something positive” for his students after a “difficult year” marked by superstorm Sandy and a false report of a gun at the high school only weeks after the Sandy Hook shooting.
The team raised the $45,000 needed to cover their expenses through contributions from fellow students, parents, teachers, local merchants and politicians.
“The outpouring from the community was overwhelming,” Capozzi said. “They really wanted to see our kids go.”
Although the team meets daily throughout the school year, the nine students selected to attend the conference also had to train throughout their summer vacation. One of the countries they were selected to represent was Bolivia, the same nation Elmont’s Model UN team was given when they competed in their first competition in Georgetown in 1978.
Each student was given an issue to research such as “Climate Change and Human Health,” “Narco-Terrorism” and “Sustainable Development,” and developed working papers to present to their assigned committees.
The competition tested their writing, public speaking and debate skills, and their knowledge of the topics and proper procedure, explained Nkenge Gilliam, one of the team’s advisors. It also required them to be friendly and sensitive to cultural differences, she added.
Gilliam said it’s rare to find a Model UN program inside a public school, let alone in a district on the lower socioeconomic end of the spectrum such as Elmont.
“MUN should be a program in all public schools, not just in the most prestigious schools in the country,” Gilliam said, adding that students who have gone through Elmont’s program tend to go on to the top universities in the country.
The team helped Michael Bediako, 16, of Elmont, discover an interest in economic international relations, which the rising senior plans to pursue in college.
“You meet people from all over the globe and have personal connections that you will never forget,” he said.
In China, Bediako also put the Mandarin Chinese he’s been studying to use and conquered his fear of heights while scaling the Great Wall.
His teammate, James Bailey, 16, of Elmont, said he gained a new understanding of other cultures and learned an inspiring lesson about the power of the individual.
Watching Elmont prevail over teams that were bigger or had more resources taught Bailey that “no matter how big or how small you are, each person is still able to make the same amount of impact in the world.”