On a recent February weekend, Old Dominion University senior Nathan Heyward walked 26 miles - while wearing a suit, carrying a gavel, giving speeches and problem-solving.
Heyward is a director general of the Monarch Model United Nations, which might not seem like a particularly physical task. But while running the three-day conference with MonarchMUN Secretary General Amanda Crocker for more than 800 high school students, the two spent their weekend directing, encouraging and bringing the concept of Model UN to life.
Now in its 43rd year, the Monarch Model United Nations encourages students to participate in a weekend of in-depth education about international affairs, treaties, speeches and, most importantly, gaining an understanding of representation and cultures.
Each participant is assigned a country, and they spend the weekend thinking like the leader of that country - solving crises, writing briefs, making alliances and learning diplomacy, while developing critical thinking skills and cultural understanding. They must come dressed in business attire and follow rules similar to those of governmental bodies.
"You commit very fully to the idea that 'I am representing this country,'" Heyward said. "It's very respectful, and the issue you represent is the only one you think about for days."
It's not uncommon to see the high school-aged participants continuing to collaborate, write and discuss issues in the evening when the day's conferences are over, Heyward said. He hopes to have a career in politics and said that the conference not only teaches him about diplomacy and planning, but empathy as well.
"Because the students represent their country so fully, it gets them in the mindset of thinking of what is best for their country and issue, which encourages them to learn about a culture and exercise critical thinking skills," he said.
The conference can make a huge difference in the lives of the high school students in terms of learning lifelong skills, said Crocker, a senior double-majoring in political science and history and secretary general of ODUMUNC.
Some specialized committees, called crisis bodies, focus on a specific problem students must solve in a faster and more dynamic environment, such as a global health pandemic or natural disasters. The idea is to mimic a real crisis simulation.
"The goal is to spread awareness, but the biggest things are really important skills: networking, public speaking, professionalism and collaboration, Crocker said. "The ability to have compassion and understanding is necessary. A lot of people judge quickly, but it's important to empathize with people. The ModelUN teaches that because you're representing another country, another point of view ... you find there's a lot of room for compromise, rather than screaming at a wall."
Empathy and understanding are also found in ModelUN's charity drive, organized by Crocker. Through donations at the conference this year, the ODUMUNC raised more than $1,400 for the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust animal rescue.
And though the high school event in February is by far its biggest, the MonarchMUN also restarted its college-level Model UN conference after a 20-year hiatus in November 2019. Students from Christopher Newport University, George Mason University and Hampton University attended, and the group hopes to grow it in 2020.
The ModelUN is housed in Batten Arts & Letters 2002 and is open to any ODU student, regardless of year or major. Training and information are given to new participants, and the price of conferences is kept low to allow access to all, Heyward said.
"We'll help make sure you're confident in what you're going to do," Heyward said, "because we all share a love for diplomacy and communicating and working together, and if we think we can share this message to more people we can make the world a little better."