Students Shape Debate at Model European Union in Washington, D.C.

Monday, November 24, 2008

While their compatriots were consumed by the proceedings of the 2008 U.S. presidential election, eight Saint Joseph's students enrolled in an upper level political science course were hyper-focused on Ireland. During the semester, the students made short work of mastering the dynamics of modern Irish politics, became experts on global warming and its impact on the island nation, and like actors, got into the personas of their alter egos – real Irish political figures assigned to them by the instructor of POL 2871 Model European Union, political science adjunct Christopher Counihan '92, Ph.D.

Then the weekend before Thanksgiving, the group of international relations and political science majors travelled with Counihan to Washington, D.C., to participate in the Mid-Atlantic European Union Simulation Consortium, where they debated college students portraying political officials from the other 26 EU nations. The debate centered on a simulated resolution that focused on land use, energy alternatives and sustainable agriculture, and was aimed at mitigating the effects of global warming and its impact on the environment.

"The students worked hard all semester, learning about the EU in particular and parliamentary systems in general, and became adept in the issues surrounding global warming policies in the EU," said Counihan, who taught the course last fall. "They also developed an in-depth understanding of Irish politics and individual Irish MEPs (Members of the European Parliament). But what is singular about this course is that at the simulation in Washington, they had the opportunity to put all of this theoretical knowledge into practice."

According to Counihan, the students were at the top of their game in Washington, shaping the debate over several important issues that were central to Irish interests. He credits a meeting at the Irish Embassy as critical to their success.

"The Irish officials gave us their views on the EU and why it is so vital to their position in the global political system, and they also gave us an excellent overview of Irish politics and culture," he said. "The students leveraged comments from the embassy staff into some very persuasive arguments during the debates on the floor of the simulation."

Several students enrolled in the course in order to gain hands-on experience. Juniors Briana Kraus, Titilayo Obiri and Chelsea Sproul will spend the spring semester in Belgium studying at the Leuven Institute. They will also intern at the EU.

"I have always thought governmental systems were interesting, and I enjoy learning about how other governments work," said Kraus. "After taking the model EU class, I feel more prepared for my internship."

Senior political science major Vincent McFadden found the course challenging but rewarding. "At the beginning of the semester, I had little knowledge of the problems associated with global warming, both in the EU and the rest of the world. I had to do a great deal of research so that I would be an effective debater in Washington, but it was worth the extra effort."

Lisa Baglione, Ph.D., chair and professor of political science, who taught the class during its initial offering in 2004 and again in the fall of '05, said that as students prepare for the simulation, they must think carefully not only about core concepts in political science – like representation and ideology – but also about how best to protect, in this case, Irish national interest.

"The students need to think about what kinds of tradeoffs between sovereignty and cooperation they – as particular Irish politicians – would be willing to make," noted Baglione. "Each student has a set of constituents that she or he needs to please, or at least consider, and each has ideological principles to uphold. As the students have learned, constituents and principles may come in conflict, so managing this tension is one of the keys to their participation in the simulation. It's a valuable lesson in practical politics."

--Patricia Allen

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