Bilingualism is a superpower at Model UN

Posted on April 06, 2023

Student raises hand with paper saying guatemala

Students from across North Carolina are making “conexiones” at UNC Greensboro between world issues, language, and each other. 

In March, more than 300 middle school students from 19 schools came to UNCG to tackle the issue of water scarcity – all in a model United Nations scenario and entirely in Spanish.


Man explains paper to group of young students
Straus works with students during the model U.N. event.

Participate Learning, a global educational services company, put together the event as part of their Conexiones program, which provides curriculum, training, and exchange teachers to dual-language middle schools. In Conexiones, students learn about different cultures and issues in order to apply their bilingualism to their future careers. There are 33 Conexiones schools in North Carolina and Virginia. 

“The goal is to become bilingual leaders,” says Jason Straus, Conexiones product manager for Participate Learning. “Bilingualism is a superpower, and it can really enhance a person’s professional and personal life.”

For the past three years, Participate Learning has held its model United Nations event focusing on a different topic each year.

“In order to identify the topic, teachers do activities with their students to figure out what issues they’re most interested in,” Straus says. “And then we come together as a teacher group and propose topics we can do, based on what the students tell them.”


Students were assigned countries to represent at the model U.N., and they prepared opening statements representing their assigned country’s position. After the opening statements, students spent about an hour in “Ambassador Activity,” a time to discuss in Spanish potential solutions to be voted as resolutions.

Sophomore Reynolds scholar Jia Emaus helped restart UNCG’s model U.N. Club and volunteered at the event.

“It’s just so meaningful,” Emaus says. “These kids are middle schoolers, and I was never exposed to model U.N. when I was their age. So being part of building this experience and exposing them to the kinds of ideas that the U.N. ignites is so cool.”

Emaus, a double major in international and global studies and political science with a double minor in Spanish and Chinese, says doing model UN can be valuable for all students.

“It’s just a great way for a person to practice diplomacy, to make connections, to be a leader, and also to learn about real world problems and practice fixing them,” she says.


Participate Learning went virtual due to COVID-19, so this was the first in-person Conexiones model UN event in two years. It was also the first event to be held at UNCG, a conexión for Straus.

As an AmeriCorps member through the AmeriCorps Access Project – part of UNCG’s Center for New North Carolinians, Straus helped create the Oakwood Forest Community Center in Greensboro. While at the center 11 years ago, Straus led volunteers Marisa Gonzalez ‘16 ‘19 MA, who is now a UNCG educational leadership doctoral student and an Assistant Director in the Office of Intercultural Engagement (OIE) which helped with the event.

“It’s a small world moment,” Straus says.

Bertha Figueroa
Bertha Figueroa is one of the 50 bilingual UNCG students who volunteered at the model U.N. event.

Several of the students Straus and Gonzalez mentored are now UNCG students and served as part of the group of 50 current UNCG bilingual student volunteers. Gonzalez now works closely with these bilingual students in her role at the OIE supporting Latino student engagement and intergroup dialogue. 

“When Jason reached out about the possibility it was an easy decision to collaborate because of how well the project aligned with our values at the OIE and for how cool it would be to reconnect years later to host a bilingual experiential learning experience like this for our older and newer students,” Gonzalez says. “Within days I had a growing list of student volunteers who wanted to play a role in making this day possible.” 

Students visiting campus also had the opportunity to connect with UNCG students virtually before the event and then do a campus tour. Bertha Figueroa – a junior studying Speech Pathology and Audiology – gave tours to students and says it’s important for young people to see themselves in others.

“We’re all so different,” she says. “We have so many different identities, and it’s very nice to see yourself and other people in roles that you want later in life. I know it was very important for me.”


Santiago Sanabria Guzman
Santiago Sanabria Guzman volunteered at the event, talking with students about water scarcity in his native Colombia.

As a high school student, Santiago Sanabria Guzman was one of those students influenced by seeing someone like him at UNCG. Originally from Colombia, Sanabria Guzman first visited UNCG through CHANCE, a six-week summer program for Latino and Hispanic rising high school juniors and seniors focused on college preparedness and leadership skills. 

“The program gave you UNCG student mentors,” says Sanabria Guzman, who is now a junior sociology and political science major. “Hearing how the students could study and be professional was amazing. It impacted me.”

Sanabria Guzman volunteered at the model U.N. event, talking with students about his native Colombia. He’s passionate about water scarcity in Colombia and stresses collaboration is necessary to solve these large issues.

“It’s not just about Colombia. It’s about knowing what everyone’s problems are and working together to create solutions,” says Sanabria Guzman.

Participate Learning hopes these Conexiones model UN events show students higher education is attainable.

“I want students to know that college is a possibility for them by actually seeing a college campus and interacting with UNCG students,” Straus says. “It makes all of this a possibility for them no matter which walk of life or family situation they come from.”

Story by Avery Craine Powell, University Communications
Photography by Sean Norona, University Communications


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