Posted by Mary Wimberley on 2010-03-26
A recent trip to the Belgrade International Model United Nations (BiMUN) in Serbia placed eight Samford University students in the thick of the region’s culture, history and politics. Interviews and chance meetings exposed them to a “who’s who” of the Serbian political elite, journalists, American Embassy officials and others.

In a way, however, the Samford students were the who’s who.

When a conference participant from Croatia thanked Samford senior Thomas Archer for traveling all the way from the U.S. for the event, he mentioned that Archer was the first American he had ever met.

“It helped me to realize what a difference we actually make by attending Model UN conferences like these, often in ways we don’t even know about,” said Archer, a political science major from Russellville, Ala., who hopes to earn a master’s degree in education and teach high school government.

“I want to be able to share the experience I have had from visiting countries like China, Israel, Ecuador and Serbia with people who will probably never get that chance,” said Archer, a member of the Samford Model UN team since it was started two years ago.

In the Model UN program, students role-play as UN committee members, learning to use parliamentary procedure to cooperate with other nations to reach resolution on a variety of topics. Since 2008, Samford teams have been to conferences on three continents and twice to New York City.

The advisor, political science professor Dr. Andrew Konitzer, and this year’s team were the only American representatives at the four-day BiMUN, held March 18-21.

The team joined college students from mostly Central and Eastern Europe in formal discussions of such topics as the current situation in Afghanistan, Roma rights, the protection of cultural sites in the Balkans and the NATO-UN peacekeeping partnership.

The often heavy topics were balanced with social activities, such as a “national night” at which students shared local food, music and other cultural specialties of their home lands.

At the closing ceremony in the Serbian National Assembly, Konitzer gave a presentation on the topic, “The Legitimacy-Efficiency Paradox in NATO-UN Relations,” and responded to audience questions.

Prior to arriving in the Serbian capital of Belgrade for the conference, the students toured the countryside and small towns, attended mass at a 300-year-old Serbian Orthodox village church, and visited a ceramic goods factory and a folklore center that preserves traditional dances and songs.

Pre-conference highlights in Belgrade included interview meetings with human rights activist and former journalist Jelena Grujic, Serbian Parliament vice president and Democratic party official Gordana Comic and her political rival, Serbian Progressive party vice president Nebojsa Stefanovic, and officials of the Belgrade Humanitarian Law Center. Prominent journalists shared insights into media freedom in Serbia, and U.S. Embassy foreign service officers gave their own assessment of the political and security situation in Serbia.

At a cultural center dubbed the American Corner, before an audience of Serbian citizens, each Samford student briefly presented what they felt to be today’s greatest world challenge, discussed possible U.S. responses to the problem, and voiced their own personal role in tackling the issue.

The site offered one of several opportunities for the Samford students to think and respond quickly.

“I was very impressed with our students,” said Konitzer. “Given the history of U.S-Serbian relations, there were inevitably a few moments where they faced vigorous criticism about the country’s policies. Nonetheless, rather than withdrawing behind their personal defenses, they saw this as an opportunity to reexamine their own views and engage in dialogue.”

Samford team members, in addition to Archer, included Kathleen Artman, Erica Carr, Andrew Mays, Clay Menefee, Hilary Sawyer, Alex Sconfienza and Mary Evelyn Todd.

Overall, Konitzer said, the trip accomplished the goals it was designed to meet, including interaction with students from countries that are not part of the traditional Model UN circuit and interviews that provided an overview of political, social and economic challenges in the region and also gave the students a taste of the excitement and anxieties of field-research.

“Finally, I really hoped to maximize contact with individuals and families living there so that this would not be a detached, guided tour experience,” said Konitzer.

That goal was nicely met through the hospitality of his wife Maja’s parents, Bata and Marija Budovalcev, who hosted several students as overnight guests and the entire group for a traditional lunch at their home in the town of Idos.
Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. The Wall Street Journal ranks Samford 1st nationally for student engagement and U.S. News & World Report ranks Samford 66th in the nation for best undergraduate teaching and 104th nationally for best value. Samford enrolls 5,683 students from 47 states and 19 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference, and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.