Jerry Zhu, a sophomore at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, Pa., attended the Ivy League Model United Nations Conference for the first time this year. He paid approximately $500 to spend a weekend debating current events in international affairs with about 3,000 other high school students from around the world.
ILMUNC, the International Affairs Association’s high school model UN conference, concluded last Sunday. Celebrating its 30-year anniversary, the conference is one of the IAA’s two largest conferences, and it competes with Harvard and Georgetown universities’ conferences as one of the top high school conferences in the world.
High school students gathered at the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown Hotel to participate in what the IAA calls “The Championship Conference.” The three floors filled with thousands of delegates socializing, purchasing merchandise and doing last-minute research before making their way to their next committee session.
As delegates opened their guides, the first thing they saw was a letter from Penn President Amy Gutmann endorsing the entirely student-run conference.
“Penn is delighted to sponsor the 30th annual Ivy League Model United Nations Conference,” Gutmann wrote. “We at Penn hope you will emerge from this Model UN Conference empowered, enlightened and enthusiastic about your ability to help lay the foundation for a better and brighter future for humankind.”
IAA members have been preparing for ILMUNC for almost a year. Last Monday, members of the secretariat — the primary planners and coordinators of the conference — began preparing the Sheraton for the massive conference.The enormous undertaking required high-ranking leaders to prioritize the conference over all other commitments.
“I always skip my classes for ILMUNC,” College junior Devin DiSabatino, ILMUNC’s secretary general, said. “Setting up the hotel is always a huge, huge thing.”
The conference is staffed by about 300 Penn students, including nearly 30 members of the secretariat.
Students that staff the conference do so for many reasons, ranging from genuine interest in international affairs to the attractiveness of the IAA’s social programming. In order to be a member of the IAA, students must staff both ILMUNC and the IAA’s college conference, the University of Pennsylvania Model United Nations Conference, also known as UPMUNC.
“I joined for the combination of the challenge and the ability to help plan such a big event and hopefully see awesome results and a positive impact on high school students,” College freshman and assistant secretary general Mitchell Kaufman said.
“Conference itself creates this euphoria that comes over you while you’re operating at 100 percent, and running this huge thing and seeing it come together. It’s such an incredible feeling,” DiSabatino added.
Delegates — the high school participants — and their faculty advisors travel from around the country and the world to attend this conference, often at very high costs.Once at the conference, delegates participate in six three-hour simulated UN committee sessions, along with opening and closing ceremonies, campus tours, a summer opportunities fair and social activities.
“ILMUNC has given me the opportunity to meet a ton of [Penn] students and it has exposed me to the community and culture of Penn,” Zhu said. He plans to apply to Penn, probably early decision.
Similarly, Emilia Feldman and Olivia Backal-Balik, a senior and junior, respectively, from the Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, Pa., came to the conference for the first time this year with 13 other students.Their MUN club meets approximately six hours per week and prepares primarily for ILMUNC. The students paid $425 each to attend the conference.
“At times, it can be dry, but I think the material is interesting,” Backal-Balik said. “It shows a bright future when most people seem skeptical of our generation.”
Feldman praised ILMUNC’s ability to attract students with common interests. “It brings together a lot of really interesting people who are really passionate about politics and conflict resolution,” Feldman added.
Many delegates use ILMUNC as an opportunity to explore Penn. The conference coordinates with the Kite and Key Society to offer campus tours to interested delegates.
Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said ILMUNC is a “lasting Penn experience,” and noted that some applicants mention the IAA in their “Why Penn?” essay.
*Facilitating debate: A prospering business*
For high school students, the conference is a unique opportunity to debate current international relations issues, meet other students and learn more about Penn. For the IAA, it’s also a huge source of income.
The leaders of ILMUNC and the IAA are reluctant to release any of their financial information.
“There are a lot of other conferences and we have a competitive edge because of the way we do things and operate, and that’s why we are one of the best conferences in the country,” IAA President and Wharton senior Yadavan Mahendraraj said. “We like to keep our operational processes to ourselves because that is what makes this the Championship Conference of the world.”
An analysis of ILMUNC’s sources of income, however, shows the conference to be a big money-maker.
Registering for the conference costs $75 per delegate, in addition to a $60 deposit for each school. Additionally, each school must send one faculty advisor for every 20 delegates, at $40 per faculty member. With 3,000 students and 115 schools, that amounts to over $235,000 in revenue from registration fees alone, minus some scholarships that ILMUNC provides.
Student delegations pay for hotel accommodations separately, but ILMUNC works out a rate with the Sheraton and guarantees a block of rooms that can be booked by ILMUNC attendees, according to DiSabatino. In return, ILMUNC receives a portion of the proceeds, which it then uses to rent out the conference spaces in the hotel and book the rooms for staffers and the secretariat.
“It’s all one big contract with a whole bunch of moving parts,” DiSabatino said.
While most delegates and faculty advisors stayed at the Sheraton, some chose to stay at the Embassy Suites, the Sonesta or the Four Seasons.
Overseeing much of the conference’s finances is College and Wharton sophomore Ankit Gulati, ILMUNC’s business director. Gulati believes that the IAA is “a great breeding ground for management skills.”
In addition to registration fees and hotel proceeds, ILMUNC has additional sources of revenue, such as conference merchandise. Roses, conference apparel, sunglasses and teddy bears were available for sale for the entire duration of the conference.
“We’re known for being able to provide [merchandise] in unheard-of quantities,” Gulati added.
At the conference, staffers selling merchandise were urged to try to sell higher-margin merchandise first.
Also adding to ILMUNC’s revenue are its sponsors, most of which are academic organizations and teen summer programs, DiSabatino said. Sponsorship packages ranged from $200 to $6,500 to advertise at the conference. Previous sponsors include Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Starbucks, Wawa, and Krispy Kreme.
While the IAA is registered with SAC, they do not receive any funding, DiSabatino said. SAC declined to comment on whether or not the IAA receives any SAC money.
“ILMUNC and UPMUNC are where we make our revenues,” DiSabatino added.
*‘The club pays’*
After the costs of the conference, including the costs of printing and renting all the necessary equipment, are covered, remaining revenues go to the IAA to fund several types of club activities — from college conferences to open bars.
Mahendraraj said “the vast majority of [the] proceeds” from the conference go to funding IAA delegations to the 10 collegiate conferences that the club attends. The rest of the money goes to social events, academic programming, the Consul — an international affairs magazine — and philanthropic programs. The IAA does not maintain an endowment, according to Mahendraraj.
The IAA also sends approximately 10 members to run annual high school conferences in both China and India. However, Mahendrarj explained that those conferences only generate enough money to cover travel costs and conference expenses. The trips, which take place over winter and spring breaks, are entirely free for IAA members.
A great deal of the proceeds from ILMUNC and UPMUNC are directed to social events. In fact, the IAA has an entire division dedicated to special events. These events range from paintballing excursions to BYOs, fancy dinners and even extravagant formals.
College freshman Avi Colonomos was a staffer at both ILMUNC and UPMUNC this year. He did MUN in high school, and has traveled to conferences at Yale and Georgetown with the IAA.
“It’s a good way to meet a diverse group of people ... It’s really social. We have BYOs,” Colonomos said. “The club pays for them.”
“There is a semiformal and a formal each year,” Colonomos added. “They do have parties, especially during homecoming when a lot of alums are here.”
The parties are hosted at off-campus houses, and both members and nonmembers can attend and drink free of charge.
The IAA’s fall semiformal and spring formal — events almost completely subsidized by the club — are highlights for many members.
The cost per person for the upcoming IAA spring formal is around $100, and the IAA will subsidize $75 for each member that attends, according to a member of the IAA’s special events division. The formal will have hors d’oeuvres, a three-course meal and an open bar.
Some groups within the IAA also have their own events. To celebrate the end of UPMUNC this fall, the conference planners went to Zahav, a renowned — and expensive — Middle Eastern restaurant in Old City. Not only did the IAA pay for dinner and cocktails, but also for the stretch limos which brought them to and from the restaurant.
The IAA’s special events division also plans trips for members to go bonding in the Poconos.
“We do all sorts of really cool social things,” College freshman Syra Ortiz-Blanes, an IAA member, said. “Formal is going to be great. I am really excited about it.”