Four tips for getting the most out of your virtual UN experience
By Jillian LeBlanc, UNA-Canada Service Corps delegate
Earlier this month I had an opportunity to attend the United Nations (UN) 10th anniversary Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum representing the United Nations Association in Canada with 10 000+ youth from around the world. While this forum usually takes place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, due the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this event was held completely virtually.
The ECOSOC Youth Forum was two firsts for me: (1) this was my first formal engagement with any UN forum; and (2) this was my first time virtually attending a forum of this scale. At the start, I was worried I would be missing out on what the previous in-person events had to offer; however, with a little bit of agility and creative solutions, I left the forum feeling engaged and excited for future opportunities. As a way to give back to my community, I want to share my experience at the ECOSOC Youth Forum as well as provide four tips for how to get the most out of your experience as part of a completely virtual summit.
What is ECOSOC?
The ECOSOC forum is a “global platform for a candid dialogue among Member States and young leaders from around the world on solutions to challenges affecting youth wellbeing.” With this year’s theme focused on “Sustainable and resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic” as well as on Sustainable Development Goals 1, 2, 3, 8, 10, 12, 13, 16 and 17 (read more about them by checking out the hyperlink).
1. Take advantage of the thematic side events
The forum took place over two days, three days if you count the side event day (which I do). This brings me to my first tip: sign up for side events. Side events are organized around the main event focusing on different themes, with speakers from civil society and government. They are designed to focus on a specific aspect of a forum-adjacent issue, touching on everything from climate justice to public transportation, to gender equality and mental health. There is really something for everyone and the presenters’ passion for the issues they work on really shone through during these sessions. I would recommend attending sessions you want to take a deep dive into as well as session topics or organizers you are not as familiar with and want to learn more about.
2. Take LOTS of notes
ECOSOC featured youth leaders and allies from all across the world from a diversity of backgrounds. There are so many opportunities to hear from these incredible people. However, it is important to know that sessions are often happening at the same time, changing between languages and platforms, with a large amount of information coming at you very fast, so I would highly suggest keeping detailed notes to refer back to later. I would take particular care to note down the speakers’ countries, organizations and names, especially if it's a topic of interest to you. Unlike in an in person-environment where you would be able to follow up with that person post-speech, it is harder, although not impossible, to find out more about a person or organization of interest in the digital space. This is why you need to take these notes so that you can make sure you can find them to follow up with after.
3. Get ready to get involved online
If you're anything like me, one of your draws to an event like this is the opportunity to connect with other engaged young people who are passionate about local and global issues. Don't let the virtual space stop you from doing this. Change your social media profiles with a frame or with a hashtag to signal to people you're at the forum, interact with relevant hashtag/accounts, join the online delegate communities or even create your own, and don't be afraid to reach out (respectfully of course), to someone you would like to continue a conversation with. One of the things I wish I had done before the event was to have a short blurb about myself along with the social media channels I felt comfortable sharing with others ready to CTRL+V into different opportunities to network during the forum. During this pandemic, the sense of isolation and loneliness has been felt around the world, so this forum is a great opportunity to meet different people worldwide who share your passions and whom you can share knowledge with going forward. Almost all the delegates I virtually connected with were friendly, open and happy to connect with others, especially during these difficult times.
4. Bring a digital-first mindset
If you’re questioning the value of participating in a virtual UN forum I would say it’s not as big of an impact as you might think. While the experience is not the same as in person, it's not worse or better - it's just different. I believe you’re able to connect with a much wider group of people faster and engage with a huge diversity of information on your own terms. Be open, be compassionate, bring a digital first mindset to the forum and you will have a great experience leaving with new information, new perspectives and new connections.
How do I get involved with ECOSOC?
If after reading through this piece you may now be thinking, this sounds like something I want to get involved with too! Although the ability to participate in the 2021 ECOSOC forum is closed, UNAC offers many other engagement opportunities throughout the year. I got involved in the forum by applying to a callout done by the United Nations Association (UNA) in Canada as part of its their UNA-Canada Service Corps program which is a “youth-focused programme that provides inaugural opportunities for young Canadians to meaningfully participate in United Nations events” and was surprised yet excited to be chosen as a delegate for ECOSOC along with two other Canadians.