Every year in January, thousands of well-dressed high schoolers come to Yale from across the country and the world for four days of simulated diplomacy. These students are here each year for YMUN — Yale Model United Nations, one of the world’s most prominent Model UN conferences for high schoolers. At YMUN, these students take on the role of delegates to the United Nations, learning negotiation, public speaking and international affairs while working with their peers to debate a topic and write international law. 

When I was a student at one of the comparatively few public high schools with a Model UN club (despite continued progress, the activity remains concentrated among upper-crust private schools), I dreamed of one day taking part in a conference as grand and prestigious as YMUN. Model UN was a truly formative experience for me in high school — I gushed about it on my Yale application, crediting the activity with teaching me self-confidence and sparking my passion for international relations. 

Enter YIRA, the Yale International Relations Association. One of the largest student organizations on campus, YIRA is the umbrella organization which oversees nearly a dozen international relations programs, including Model UN conferences ranging from the flagship YMUN conference at Yale, now in its 49th year, to smaller conferences for high schoolers in Europe, Korea, Taiwan, and most recently, Rwanda. Each year, several hundred Yalies give their time to serve these conferences as committee chairs. 

For those unfamiliar with Model UN, the committee chairs make the event run. Three times during my time at Yale, I’ve served as a committee chair, a commitment of four full days during the conference and around ten to twelve hours over the months before. Committee chairs select a topic for their students to discuss, research and write a 20-25 page research document for attendees, trained in parliamentary procedure, and answer student inquiries via email, all before the conference’s opening gavel. Over the three days of the conference, committee chairs work long hours: managing parliamentary procedure well into the evening, proof-reading students’ draft UN resolutions and generally making sure that delegates are enjoying themselves. It’s fulfilling work, but also draining academic labor. When you do the math, accounting for approximately 18 hours of committee time during the conference and approximately 10 hours of preparation time beforehand, their $55 stipend works out to less than $2 an hour.

A look at the state of YIRA’s finances reveals that while YMUN may pay its workers like they’re volunteers, it brings in money like a business — an especially lucrative one, at that. The YMUN attendance fee is $85 per student; with the number of students in a committee ranging from approximately 25 to 100 or more, it means that the committee chairs who make the event run volunteer their time for a pittance while bringing in thousands of dollars in profit each for the YIRA organization. YMUN is YIRA’s biggest money-making event each year, fueling a YIRA endowment in the six figures. Although the YIRA treasurer did not respond to my requests for information, a 2021 financial report revealed that YIRA oversees an endowment of $106,000 as of 2021 with $14,000 in net profit even during a pandemic year; as of that report, a typical year’s surplus was $90,000. That year, YMUN itself brought in $45,000 in profit after expenses.

So what could YMUN do if it chose to spend this $45,000 otherwise? It could pay its student workers a decent wage for their labor: as a student employee, I’ve found it impossible to justify working for YMUN in future given the numerous shifts I’d have to pass up on at my campus job. YMUN could commit to offering all Yalies on financial aid a decent wage for their work, one commensurate with the revenue they bring in for the organization. 

But more importantly, YMUN could become a place for all smart, determined high schoolers to grow as leaders. When I’ve chaired committees for YMUN, it’s always been sobering to look down the roster of students and realize that they’re overwhelmingly from private prep schools in the US or abroad, rather than the public schools that educate 90 percent of American teens. 

I know from experience that Model UN can let people who would never picture themselves in the ranks of the State Department realize that they, too, can pursue a career in international relations. The skills and values Model UN teaches — teamwork, leadership, negotiation, global-mindedness — shouldn’t be left only to those who can pay for attendance, travel and lodging. The current system of scattered and inaccessible financial aid for attendees isn’t enough — YMUN can embrace a mission of bringing Model UN to those who would otherwise lose out on the opportunity. Guarantee a certain number of free and subsidized spots for attendees, and strike up relationships with New Haven and Connecticut public high schools to ensure those spots are filled. 

Now is the time to embrace this change. YIRA members are now voting for the next year’s board, and planning and recruitment for next year’s YMUN is already underway. Let’s seize the opportunity to make YMUN 50 a better one — one that looks out for its staffers and gives high schoolers an opportunity to find their place in international relations regardless of their school’s income. This would mean not only a richer experience for both high school attendees and the Yalies who serve them, but also a YMUN that finally lives up to Model UN’s values both inside and outside the committee room. 

JULIAN DANIEL is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact him at julian.daniel@yale.edu.