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Students model European Union

02/08/2022 

The country of Austria’s official coat of arms depicts a fierce black eagle. But for three days last month, it was represented by Red Dragons.

Three SUNY Cortland students role-played as the nation’s ministers and diplomats in a simulated discussion of real-world issues among European Union countries as participants in Global Model European Union (MEU) 2022. A recent SUNY Cortland graduate represented Lithuania in the same simulation.

This year’s Global MEU, held from Jan. 13 to 15, attracted 80 participants from 14 universities in seven countries: Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Morocco, Romania and the U.S.

The annual hands-on experiment in governmental negotiation and diplomacy, which traditionally has involved participants traveling to either New York City or Brussels, was held virtually for a second year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Ardesian “Ardi” Binjakaj

Nevertheless, the SUNY Cortland contingent thrived and captured accolades after the simulation concluded.

  • Senior business economics major Ardesian “Ardi” Binjakaj, role-playing as Austrian economics minister in the Economics and Finance Council at his first Global MEU, received one of only two “Most Diplomatic” awards by faculty supervising the annual simulation in international governing.
  • Jennifer Toribio, who played the role of the Austrian foreign minister in the Foreign Affairs Council, was recognized as one of five participants who were veterans of at least four Model EU events.
  • SUNY Cortland graduate Kelsilyn Norman ’20, who participated as a representative of Lithuania, was honored as a recipient of one of two “Most Articulate” awards. Norman currently is a graduate student at France’s Paris School of International Affairs.
  • Melissa Alvisi, who took on the role of the Austrian head of government, helped prepare the SUNY Cortland team. As a veteran of two Model EU conferences, Alvisi adeptly navigated debates with other heads of government and helped guide Austria’s contributions in other committee meetings as well.

“I’m actually looking forward to getting my master’s in diplomacy,” said Binjakaj, an international student who during 2020-21 academic year served as vice president of SUNY Cortland’s Student Government Association.

“I think it’s definitely one of my main skills, my main areas. I’m definitely a very cold-blooded person, meaning in the Albanian sense that I’m actually a very calm and collected person. I’m very diplomatic. I very much value collaboration, talks and bargaining. I really don’t like conflict.”

Born in Italy and raised in Albania, at SUNY Cortland Binjakaj was inspired by this experience to add political science as a dual major with business economics, and will graduate next spring with a minor in computer applications and concentration in financial management.

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Jennifer Toribio

“I want to increase the participation of students in other majors,” he said. “Obviously it’s particularly oriented for students in International Studies. But I don’t see why a student who’s majoring in business economics or political science or even someone working on environmental studies cannot do this. Because we have all those four committees, and the European Commission and the EU is a body that pretty much takes experts from all fields.”

Toribio, a senior international studies and political science major from Freeport, N.Y., has four Global MEU simulations under her belt; New York City in 2019, Brussels in 2020 and online the past two cycles.

“Working remotely the last two years is definitely a different experience, but academically I think over the four years it’s consistently the same: you learn something new,” she said.

“Being the foreign affairs minister for Austria was a different role than what I’ve done in the past,” she said. “All four years I’ve actually had different roles.

“Although you learn more on European politics, one of the plusses of this conference is you really get to dive deep into one country in particular,” Toribio said. “For example, I really had no idea Austria was going through so many political changes. It was just a real learning experience for me.”

The class project has inspired her to seek her dual citizenship from the Dominican Republic and a future job in its embassy. Meanwhile, she will pursue graduate studies in public policy.

“The Model European Union shaped my decision to add political science as a major a year ago,” Toribio said. “It made me realize I could do so much more.”

As head of Austria’s government, Alvisi, a senior international studies major with dual Italian and American citizenship, found this year’s MEU particularly challenging for two reasons.

For one, Austria has had two new chancellor’s within two months due to Chancellor Kurz’ resignation in October 2021.

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Melissa Alvisi

“I would usually think ‘What would the chancellor say on this matter?,’ but when there are three different chancellors in such a short amount of time, it is definitely harder to tell,” she said.

For another, during her Head of Government chat room discussions about the Russia-Ukraine conflict, she needed to consider that some European Union countries, including Austria, aren’t part of NATO, which would have a say in the dispute from a military standpoint.

“My main focus for this matter was to keep the neutrality status Austria would enact, but there were a few times where it was tough to stay neutral,” Alvisi said.

“You never stop learning from a peer from another school who is representing another country,” said Alvisi, the daughter of alum and one-time Cortland resident Alba Panzanella ’86. “You never stop learning from your professor, and from your team.”

Alvisi, who currently is serving SUNY Cortland’s Student Government Association as the 2021-22 chief financial officer, is weighing her next steps for when she graduates in May: the pursuit of joint degrees relating to public administration and international relations, the possibility of an internship with the Brussels School of Government or continuing to explore a U.S. Foreign Service career.

This year, the Global Model EU 2022 tackled the following timely issues:

  • Heads of government crafted a response to Russia for its military threats toward Ukraine and responded to the refugee crisis on the Belarussian border and related calls by Poland and other European states for a border wall.
  • The Economics and Finance Council drafted a resolution on an EU-wide minimum wage and EU carbon tax policy.
  • Foreign affairs ministers discussed the Strategic Compass for an EU mutual security and defense policy, with a related debate about the role of NATO in an EU where not all member states are NATO members.
  • Environmental ministers discussed the EU nuclear energy policy and encouraging renewable energy sources to help lessen European dependence on fossil fuel imports from unfriendly states.

SUNY Cortland Professor of History Scott Moranda advised this year’s Global MEU team while the usual faculty advisor, Associate Professor Alexandru Balas, director of the university’s Clark Center for Global Engagement, is on sabbatical.

“Throughout the fall semester and over winter break, I guided the students in their preparations and research for the conference,” said Moranda, who, in addition to serving as acting director of the Clark Center, coordinates Cortland’s Project on Eastern and Central Europe (PECE).

“I was incredibly impressed with the commitment and industriousness of the student participants in a virtual conference held during their winter break. I was very proud of their articulate and well-researched participation in the conference negotiations and debates.”

The Global MEU 2022 co-directors were Juan Arroyo from Ithaca College and Giulia Tercovich of the Brussels School of Governance; with help from Michelle Benson-Saxton and Collin Anderson at University at Buffalo, Alexandru Balas at SUNY Cortland and Zakhar Berkovich at SUNY Albany.

Organizers also credit SUNY Cortland’s Daniel Condon, Campus Store director; Tina Russell, of Cortland Auxiliary; and Mary Schlarb, director of the Office of International Programs, with supporting the Global MEU projects these last few years.