This weekend, 350 undergraduates from across the U.S. gathered at Yale to develop solutions to territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

At the second annual Yale Undergraduate International Policy Competition, groups of students from 46 universities developed and presented policy briefs. The competition — which applies a hackathon model to the content of a Model United Nations conference — is the first of its kind, according to Elisabeth Siegel ’20, co-founder of the event. A group with four Yale students — Abby Leonard ’21, Jake Mezey ’21, Qusay Omra ’21 and Henry Suckow Ziemer ’21 — won the competition for their proposal to combat trafficking. The team received $1,000 in prize money as well as a one year membership to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“I have to admit I didn’t know anything at all about the complex geopolitics of the South China Sea before this competition, and I’m grateful that I could learn a lot about the region in the short time that we spent [competing],” Omra said. “My team realized pretty quickly that we had to identify a single, specific issue and focus on it so that our final policy proposal would be sharp and actionable.”

For the first time, the competition expanded beyond Yale. Last year, 80 Yalies competed and developed policy proposals for rebuilding Mosul, Iraq, post-conflict.

“We founded [the competition] because we saw that students didn’t have outlets to see the efficacy of actual policy,” Siegel told the News.

Siegel said that because careers in international affairs depend mainly on networking opportunities, students from schools with fewer connections to the field are disadvantaged when trying to pursue international policy as a career. The Yale Undergraduate International Policy Competition creates a more level playing field by allowing students from all different socioeconomic backgrounds and regions to meet people in the international policy universe, she added.

The competition provides more than just another Model United Nations conference, according to Rebecca Irby, founding partner and president of the PEAC Institute — an advocacy group for international peace and a partner of the competition.

“We’re not seeing much substance coming out of Model United Nations,” Irby said. “Having a specific policy in mind and the details to back it up can have a huge impact.”

Michael Chase, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, delivered the keynote address, in which he revealed that students’ proposals would address territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The area is a politically and economically strategic zone for all of its surrounding countries — China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

During their work time, which totaled fewer than 11 hours, students selected one of several subtopics to address in their policy proposals. Options for subtopics included conflict resolution and security; trade and economics; and global health and medicine. On Sunday, students presented to a panel of judges — experts in the field from as far as the South Korean Ministry of National Defense to think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Asia Society Policy Institute. Other judges included students from the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, the competition’s partner organization.

Students were evaluated on a number of areas, including the originality and feasibility of their ideas as well as their delivery while presenting their policy brief.

Competition co-founder Alexander Jang ’19 said he hopes the event becomes more mainstream on Yale’s campus and spreads to other universities. Jang noted that Johns Hopkins University is already planning a similar event.

Siegel said that she hopes future events have multiple topics available — topics that will potentially span both international security and international development.

For students, the competition also provided a chance to learn from experts in international affairs. Niko Ortega, a senior at Wesleyan University, said he appreciated that the competition was “homegrown” and found feedback from the judges particularly insightful.

“I wish they were building more of a sense of community among the contestants,” he said, suggesting a possible meet-and-greet in which students could get to know one another before the competition began.

Zipphora Rutty, an undergraduate at the State University of New York at New Paltz, said she came to the Yale Undergraduate International Policy Competition because her career goal is to work in the United Nations.

“It taught me to never give up and take chances,” Rutty said. 

A team of students from Harvard came in second place in the competition, while another group from Yale came in third. Honorable mentions went to one team from Amherst College and another from Bard College.

Gabriel Klapholz |

Eileen .

Gabriel Klapholz '22 was Opinion Editor of the News from 2019-2020. After graduating Yale, he worked as an antitrust paralegal at the Department of Justice. Gabriel is now a 1L at Yale Law School, with a focus on international law and LGBTQ+ advocacy.