Frank Cassata’s passion for international relations traces back to his family’s roots in Sicily—a unique connection to immigration that sparked an interest in how countries and international laws work.

It’s that passion that led Cassata to join Illinois State’s Model UN team, which recently returned from its annual trip to New York for the National Model United Nations (NMUN) conference. Cassata and the other delegates spent a portion of the conference inside the iconic UN headquarters building.

“Walking into the actual United Nations was a jaw-dropping experience,” said Cassata, a junior political science major from Arlington Heights. “It’s this huge building, with 193 flags in front. Walking through those gates was like walking into Disney World. This is where the magic happens.”

Illinois State’s Model UN team is sponsored by the Department of Politics and Government. The 12 students on the team enroll in a related course before heading to New York each spring.

For the second straight year, Illinois State brought home a Distinguished Delegation award from the NMUN conference, which draws 5,000+ students. That honor is only given to the top 20 percent of schools.

Model UN helps students improve their writing, research, public speaking, leadership and negotiation skills, said Noha Shawki, an associate professor in the Department of Politics and Government who oversees Model UN.

“The off-campus opportunities that the Department of Politics and Government offer are really very valuable, because I strongly believe that these off-campus opportunities and experiential learning opportunities can foster deep learning and also enduring learning,” Shawki said.

Each Model UN team is assigned a country; this year, Illinois State’s focus was on Singapore.

Cassata was paired up on Model UN with senior anthropology major Josh Rotkvich. Together, they were assigned to the Nonproliferation Review Conference, focusing on nuclear weapons issues. They spent hours and hours researching throughout the semester, all in preparation for the big NMUN conference.

Cassata says his Model UN experience helped him improve the way he conducts research, among other things. He plans to pursue his master’s degree and Ph.D., then hopes for a career with the UN or as a professor of international relations.

“I think going to this conference in New York has really solidified my passion for international relations,” Cassata said. “This has proved that this is what I want to do for a living.”

Ryan Denham can be reached at Bob Tomaski can be reached at