Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Andrew YJ Kim - Blueprint for Action

Research Question:

How can Harvard National Model UN as a student organization better foster pre-professional learning while also offering a more vibrant and inclusive social community? This has been the central guiding question during my year of leading HNMUN, especially due to the disruptions caused by COVID-19 and the significant shortcomings in my institutional memory given that our organization had not hosted in-person events for over a whole year. My year (Class of 2022) as well as the year below us (Class of 2023) were the only two class-years that had any in-person HNMUN experience going into program planning. As such, we strove to replicate events of years prior (such as Full Staff Night Out, in which the club books out a venue and pays for all the food and drinks for members to come enjoy) while also adding innovations of our own. It hit home for me throughout my term as Secretary-General that within the club, social networking and pre-professional learning are not things that happen out of the blue, but rather do rely on pre-planned opportunities before they can organically develop and take on a life of their own outside explicit club guidance.

Without a doubt, the single most rewarding aspect of leading HNMUN socials was witnessing underclassmen develop friend groups of their own through people that they got to meet and know better through the organization. It was these same members who, having made friends through the group, became incentivized to become more involved with the group and thus applied for Secretariat positions for the incoming year. I also became aware however, from seeing last-minute drops and hearing conversations, that this has certainly not been the case for everyone. The hope is that, by posing this research question, one can investigate and better understand from the ground-up what would make staff members feel more included, appreciated, and nurtured. It is also recognized however that the nature of this research question does necessarily assume what is 'good' for the members. As stated previously, some members do genuinely join just for the social aspects of it or to add another line to their resume. The general tendency however is that members who come for such intentions more often than not stick around, so long as their friend group stays in the organization in the case of the latter, and just to show a consistent rising-through-ranks growth on resume for the latter. Therefore, the focus of this question is inherently for the benefit of those members who are in the middle of the Venn diagram and came to experience something new that could both give them a community to associate with as well as to learn from. The hope is for concrete improvements to be made and built into institutional memory such that those members who previously did not have a reason to stick around for longer than a year do find a reason to continue being part of HNMUN. 

Interview Methods:

As mentioned regarding the organizational structure, Secretariat members have an intrinsically different 'in-group' experience compared to the average general member. In order to capture members' experiences and needs at all levels, I chose to interview everyone from novices for whom it was their very first year being part of HNMUN to veteran directors who have chaired this conference as well as many others. In total, I interviewed two former members of my Secretariat as well as six non-Secretariat members who were part of HNMUN 2022. The interview was tried to be conducted in a more conversational manner rather than in a one-way Q&A, with following interview questions being used as prompts to guide the discussion. Special attention was given towards not intentionally driving the discussion towards what I wanted to hear and to give interviewees the space to share what they wanted to share, although nonetheless it must be admitted that because I was the sole interviewer, the interviewees may have given softer constructive criticisms to spare feelings. A qualitative interview was selected over a more quantitative survey since it was important to have the members themselves walk me through their thinking process and feel like they were collaborating with me on coming up with potentially useable ideas as opposed to filling out an impersonal form that may or may not have an impact on future programming. Given several interviewees were hoping to return for another year of HNMUN in higher leadership roles, the identities of the interviewees were agreed to be kept anonymous with responses also anonymized to prevent being traced back to any one individual. Though not possible due to time constraints, the interview process would have benefited from having more non-Secretariat members represented as the current ratio over-represents the Secretariat (who are less likely to criticize their own leadership).

Questions for the Secretariat interviewees versus non-Secretariat ones were similar but still differed given the different levels of involvement. At the end of every interview, interviewees were asked to share anything else they wanted to discuss or suggest about how HNMUN is run moving forward.

Recommendation #1: Small-Group Meets & Socials

Interviewees had mixed responses regarding their social experiences in HNMUN. While Secretariat members as well as members who were lucky to have more sociable and outgoing Under-Secretary-General lead their organ reported feeling close to other members of the organ that they had worked with, saying, "I got to really know them this year, and would consider them now to be good friends," others reported feeling left out or not as close to teammates as they had initially hoped to become. This particularly disappointing for members who had joined HNMUN for its social community, saying "I chose to be on staff because I already had friends in HNMUN... I got to meet new people too but not past the acquaintance stage." The single most important factor that every interviewee pointed to was the time constraint that restricted the extent to which interpersonal relationships could develop throughout the course of the year. As a result, rather than branching out and meeting new people, members mostly confined themselves to mingling with those whom they previously knew outside of the organization. "I came into HNMUN with a friend group, and mostly hung out with them whenever possible," was a common observation from the interviewees.

Not all members moreover enjoyed the large-scale events that usually characterized HNMUN social occasions. "It's really hard to have a one on one conversation with so many people crammed into the room with you," one member complained. Moreover, many members noted that it was logistically very difficult to find a time that worked for all of the nearly-two-hundred-member staff during the busy school semester. The answer, therefore, lies in pursuing smaller-scale events at the organ level. As one director aptly noted, "It would have just been nice to go get ice-cream or something as a team after weekly meet." Though as Secretary-General, I had asked often for my Under-Secretary-Generals to lead small organ socials of their own, the problem was that not every USG felt the need to set aside time for a separate organ social when there was always some larger organization-wide social just around the corner that month. Moreover, the current system for organizing small organ socials relied on proactive USG's having to ask the Secretary-General or the Under-Secretary-of-Finance for funds or reimbursements, rather than each organ receiving social funds of their own. 

There is no doubt that meaningful social interactions serve as the basis for a strong student organization. For some interviewees, in fact, "The small individual interactions within organ and becoming friends with them... were my favorite moments of being part of HNMUN.” After all, what use is good reputation and prestige if the members within the organization feel disconnected from one another? HNMUN must, therefore, dedicate the necessary time and resources toward investing in the smaller social experiences where members will finally get to move past just the acquaintance stage with their fellow teammates. The following set of recommendations ought to be considered for revamping the social experience of the average HNMUN staff member:

Recommendation #2: Set Roadmap & Model Behavior

Setting a strong model example in which the Secretariat leads by example is crucial to the professional success of HNMUN. Members in executive organs that involved weekly meetings complained about the lack of roadmap going into meetings, where tasks felt more ad-hoc than it needed to be. This was especially true for organs that had internally developed a more 'let's get work done and get out of here' culture, resulting in members feeling disincentivized from coming to meetings altogether since they could not predict what the expectations would be for their work. Skipping meetings whenever possible with last-minute excuses became all too common in some organs, making other members in that same organ feel disrespected and upset about they themselves spending time and energy on coming to meetings. This led to a positive feedback loop in which less and less members came to the weekly meetings and the USG felt like they could no longer delegate tasks to their members. This breakdown in the work-side of organs has detrimental consequences for future iterations of conference, as institutional memory fades away with USG's who ended up doing most of the work for that organ. Understandably, this also led some members of the Secretariat to feel "overwhelmed at times" and "emotionally drained and lonely" in having to tackle work by themselves that should have been distributed across more people.

The solution would be to have a much clearer roadmap set early enough in the semester, with regular updates to roadmap as needed being made throughout the year so that members feel kept in the loop and aware of the 'big picture'. This especially comes in handy during the actual conference itself, when there are literally dozens of moving pieces at once and the Secretariat finds itself each dealing with a multitude of problems that require their expertise. In organs that had failed to establish a positive work culture and internal collaborative culture, members often saw that they “had a backlog during the conference of people waiting to ask USG’s questions about what to do next…regarding their individual tasks”. Practice also makes perfect. At least one member of the substantive organs (GA, ECOSOC/RB, or SA) said that "There should be more mock sessions to practice before-hand." Too many members, even including the more experienced Directors, reported feeling flustered going into the actual conference with delegates because they were unsure regarding certain rules of procedure or had not gotten as much individualized attention during practice as they would have liked, resulting in self-doubt and reliance on the USG's to get through the day.

Finally, the buy-in from the Secretariat is paramount. Organ staff directly reflect the energy and attitude of their respective Under-Secretary-General, with members who are part of organs where the USG felt 'anxious' also likewise reported feelings of anxiety and confusion, whereas members in organs with USG's who were more enthusiastic reported a more positive experience even despite logistical challenges. There needs to be a clearer set of expectations and norms established from the top-down during Secretariat meetings, such that organ staff's experiences are not left to the discretion of each USG but rather can be broadly guided by a centralized culture and set of norms. This leads me to the following conclusions on role-modeling and road mapping:

Recommendation #3: 1-on-1 Feedback and Check-Ins

Finally, the academic and pre-professional nature of the organization demands that a certain level of accountability and feedback occur during the semester so that members feel like their work actually matters. Many members reported that, “I didn’t feel like my USG cared about me as a member… just so as long as I showed up.” This was especially frustrating given HNMUN's mission of having every voice be recognized and uplifted as unique and valuable. Rather than thinking of staff members as warm bodies to fill up the organizational structure, HNMUN may need to rethink how it individually approaches each and every member. Ideally, members should be made to feel like they are doing work that cannot be done by anyone else. For instance, a committee director writing a background research guide knows that only they themselves can write this particular guide since they did the necessary research before-hand. Likewise, a business director who developed a working relationship with a sponsor will know that their work matters because only they can fully communicate and represent the needs of the sponsor. If their work is easily replicable by anyone else, members will feel less incentivized to pull through at the end of the day because they realize that even if they drop the ball, the organization can easily bounce back and replace them.

Feedback moreover serves the crucial function of improving the level of quality at conference. There were instances of directors writing background guides and realizing that ,“There was not really much feedback about my writing… I didn’t know how well I was doing.” This uncertainty comes through at conference, resulting in staff showing less confidence in front of delegates and participants at the conference. Worse, it makes the director feel like that the quality of their output does not matter, incentivizing them to minimize the time and effort they have to put into work. This 'race to the bottom' can be mitigated if regular feedback is built into the club process, and members who do not pull their weight are reprimanded appropriately. One member expressed that, “It was frustrating to see how other people had to pick up the slack as others dipped.” Not only does this destroy group cohesion, it also builds unnecessary animosity within organs that take away from the collaborative mission of HNMUN. Telling USG's to "do more feedback and check-in" is not enough however. Like with socials, necessary investments must be made into motivating both USG's and staff alike to pursue vigorous feedback so that mistakes can be corrected and improvements can be made rather than giving members the impression that their work or they themselves do not matter.

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