Where in the world is Somya Shankar ’18?: From Panama City to Rome, four years in WorldMUN took senior across globe

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Somya Shankar ’18, a chemistry major, has participated in 18 Model United Nations Conferences since her freshman year of high school in Alexandria, Virginia. COURTESY PHOTO / SOMYA SHANKAR

When Somya Shankar ’18 joined Model United Nations during her freshman year of high school, her motivations ranged from an interest in international politics to an intense commitment to crafting the perfect college application. Most importantly, however, Shankar said she longed for a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar high school.

Hailing from Northern Virginia, Shankar attended the competitive Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, where she said Model United Nations more closely resembles a lifestyle than an extracurricular activity. Upward of 100 students are regularly active in the club, and the school’s Model United Nations team is routinely ranked as one of the most competitive teams in the nation. Early in her freshman year, Shankar eagerly joined its ranks and signed up to attend her first Model United Nations conference in November 2010.

“I was too nervous to even speak on the first day,” Shankar said. “I didn’t speak a word. … I did not give a speech that entire conference.” 

Serendipitously enough, that conference brought her to the College of William and Mary, where Shankar was a delegate at the International Relations Club’s 24th iteration of William and Mary High School Model United Nations, or WMHSMUN. For three days, Shankar represented the United States in a novice committee discussing social and humanitarian affairs. Yet, Shankar would hardly describe her first attempt at Model United Nations as successful.

“I was too nervous to even speak on the first day,” Shankar said. “I didn’t speak a word. … I did not give a speech that entire conference.” 

However, Shankar’s avoidance of public speaking that weekend did not detract from an otherwise overwhelmingly positive experience. 

“I had a wonderful time,” Shankar said. “I met so many people, and getting to know other freshman and upperclassmen on the team was really cool. Despite not actually doing anything in committee, [that conference] made me want to do MUN again and be better at it.”

Eight years later, Shankar stands on the precipice of graduation with 18 conferences under her belt and several passport stamps to prove it. Her commitment to Model United Nations, both in high school and at the College, has taken her around the world in pursuit of awards, friendship and intellectual development. 

But despite a successful track record, Shankar’s journey through collegiate Model United Nations has involved both painful lows as well as exhilarating highs. Upon matriculating at the College in August 2014, Shankar joined the International Relations Club’s travel team and traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the University of Pennsylvania’s annual conference later that autumn. After facing a challenging committee where she failed to win an award, Shankar began to question if she should stay involved with Model United Nations, given the club’s hefty fees and its demanding schedule. Shankar’s pursuit of a chemistry major caused her additional concern, as she feared students studying international politics or similar fields in the humanities would perpetually be better prepared.

“None of the 35 delegates from William and Mary won an award [that conference],” Shankar said. “I asked myself, am I even a good delegate anymore? I was out of my element in terms of topic knowledge.”

These anxieties did not bode well for Shankar, as she was already considering transferring out of the College by her spring semester. A lack of confidence in her abilities as a delegate led Shankar to question her role in the International Relations Club, but also contributed to broader doubt in her continued enrollment at the College.

“I was really considering transferring,” Shankar said. “I loved IR Club and I had people there, but I definitely didn’t feel like I had found a place [at the College] yet.”

Eventually, after a great deal of soul-searching, Shankar decided that she would overcome a lack of formal education in international relations by preparing especially hard, and she vowed to never be caught off guard at a conference again. 

“I decided that I can overcompensate for [not being an IR major] by just doing more research,” Shankar said. 

Shankar’s resolute attitude inspired her to attend McGill University’s annual conference in Montreal, Canada, where she eventually won first place in her committee. Her success up north then led Shankar to apply to WorldMUN, a weeklong conference hosted by Harvard University, in the spring of her freshman year. WorldMUN takes place in a different city each March, and when Shankar earned a spot on the WorldMUN team in spring 2015, she traveled to Seoul, South Korea, to represent the College on the collegiate Model United Nations circuit.

Traveling to South Korea was a turning point for Shankar, who felt bonding with her teammates abroad provided her with the belonging she had longed for in Williamsburg. The interest she had in transferring dissipated immediately after she returned to the United States. 

“My experiences in Seoul were incredible,” Shankar said. “As soon as I came back from WorldMUN, all of [my desires to transfer] had changed.” 

Forging relationships with foreign students at WorldMUN was an eye-opening experience for Shankar, who now has friends from around the world thanks to her travels as a Model United Nations delegate. Shankar attended WorldMUN during each of her four years at the College, which took her to Rome, Italy during her sophomore year, Montreal, Canada in her junior year, and Panama City, Panama as a senior. These experiences traveling abroad were life-altering for Shankar, who counts her blessings to have formed such meaningful relationships with a diverse array of individuals at WorldMUN each year. Her social networks traverse oceans and surpass national boundaries.

“I think half of the people I talk to on a daily basis don’t go to [the College],” Shankar said. “I know I could visit Luxembourg and have someone there to stay with.” 

After having attended 18 Model United Nations conferences in college — and having won an award at nine of them — Shankar is now retiring from the competitive circuit. After graduating, she plans to move to Atlanta, Georgia, to pursue clinical research before applying to medical school. While she doubts her future career will relate directly to international politics, Shankar said she is confident that Model United Nations has strengthened her skills as a communicator and as a leader.

“Model United Nations has given me the ability to connect with people very quickly,” Shankar said. “People take having effective communication skills and being able to speak publicly for granted.”

“Model United Nations has given me the ability to connect with people very quickly,” Shankar said. “People take having effective communication skills and being able to speak publicly for granted.”

But while Shankar appreciates the practical benefits of her eight years in Model United Nations, she is most grateful for the friendships she has accrued along the way, both with fellow members of the International Relations Club at the College and with her colleagues on the circuit.

“I hope Model UN has given me friendships for life, and I hope those are sustained and carry on past graduation,” Shankar said. 

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