‘Bought Me In’: How Student-Run International Conferences Rake in Cash, Fund Free Vacations

By Michelle N. Amponsah and Joyce E. Kim, Crimson Staff Writers
By Xinyi (Christine) Zhang

Updated May 23, 2024, at 2:51 p.m.

When Oscar Yang, a high school student who attends an international school in Shanghai, signed up for The Harvard Crimson’s Crimson Journalism Camp in 2023, he saw it as a unique chance to “try something new.”

“There’s very few opportunities in China where you can really do journalism practice,” Yang said, though he wrote in an emailed statement he was “not aware” that the program was not officially Harvard-run.

Yang is one of the thousands of high school students who have participated in conferences hosted by Harvard clubs in over a dozen countries abroad, from Australia to India to Panama.

For students like Yang, conferences hosted by clubs that bear the Harvard name can seem like rare and prestigious opportunities, especially if they don’t realize the conferences are not actually facilitated by the University.

But in exchange for a chance to learn from Harvard undergraduates, these conferences often cost students hundreds or even thousands of dollars to attend — and cater to students from wealthier backgrounds.

As Harvard clubs have grown into full-fledged companies with six-figure budgets, some of them have come to rely on international conferences as a significant source of revenue.

These international conferences promise to provide unparalleled educational experiences to students across the globe. But for some club members, this pedagogical mission takes a back seat. Instead, the international conferences serve as an opportunity to travel the world for free, and, in some cases, indulge on the dime of the Harvard name.

‘Basically a Vacation’

In his sophomore year, Daniel J. Ennis ’25 — treasurer for the Harvard International Relations Council, an umbrella organization for international conferences — staffed a Harvard National Model United Nations conference in Panama. After it was over, he and the other Harvard students stayed in the country to do a liquor tasting, try the local cuisine, and explore different towns.

“It was super appealing to me,” Ennis said. “It really bought me in, and that’s why I did it as a junior.”

Post-conference experiences like this one, he said, are “basically a vacation for the staffers.”

At each international conference, the budget often covers the expenses for flights, hotel fees, transportation, and related costs for dozens of staffers. In exchange for working at the conference, Harvard students receive an all-expenses-paid round-trip flight to a foreign destination — and a potential bonus vacation.

These post-conference trips are funded by the profits of the conference, according to Ennis.

“We either stay in the country or we go to a nearby country,” he said. “The first couple of days are kind of just relaxing and taking a break from the hectic life that is at the conference, and then a few days of doing different cultural immersion stuff.”

Theo J. Harper ’25, who ran the finances for HMUN India 2023, said that conferences are “primarily set up to make staffers happy,” adding that within the IRC, the opportunity for travel serves as a “rewards mechanism.”

Harper unsuccessfully sued the IRC earlier this year after he was temporarily removed for redirecting $170,000 of the group’s income to an unofficial bank account. He called the move a “financial stress test” to expose the organization’s financial security flaws and a lack of transparency from the board.

“There’s no educational experience. The incentive is you get to travel — so you get to go to a foreign country — and the incentive is you get a post-con,” Harper said. “For example, in Africa, that post-con was a safari. In Latin America, we went to lay on a beach in Panama. In India, we went touring around the Taj Mahal.”

Harvard Model Congress Asia President Stephen G. Norris ’25 said that he traveled to Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, and Japan during HMC Asia’s post-cons in past years. HMC Asia’s post-con trips are not funded by the conference.

“The opportunities for travel are unmatched, in my opinion,” he said.

The chance to visit other countries is especially significant for low-income students who otherwise would not be able to afford such travel.

HMC Middle East President Nabila I. Chowdhury ’25 said HMC was the first time she had left the country without her family as a first-generation, low-income student.

“I never had an opportunity to travel as much as I am now, especially being able to serve a community that I grew up in,” Chowdhury said.

Still, some maintained that the experiences of the student attendees was the priority during conferences.

IRC president Annabelle H. Krause ’25 said the organization’s primary goal was to bring Model UN to students around the world and educate delegates as well as undergraduate staffers.

“These conferences are a lot of work for both our boards and our directors,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s fair to characterize it as a free trip,” she added.

Vivian Yee ’25, Secretary-General of HNMUN, concurred.

“It’s by no means an easy trip to another country,” she said.

‘A Blessing and A Curse’

Beyond what they bring to individual undergraduates, international conferences also have become immensely valuable for the organizations that host them.

In the face of meager funding from the Harvard Undergraduate Association, several organizations have come to rely on profits from conferences to allow them to be self-sufficient. In 2020, for example, the IRC reported more than $700,000 in revenue and $1.2 million in net assets on their tax forms.

While Chukwudi Michael “Chudy” Ilozue ’25, the secretary general of HNMUN Africa, said his conference was “not primarily a money seeking opportunity,” other staffers stressed the international conferences’ financial significance.

Yee said that though the educational mission of HNMUN plays a part in its role, in some sense “the conferences are our primary revenue generating functions.”

According to Harper, HMUN India 2023 was “immensely financially successful,” with a “turnover of well in excess of half a million dollars” and a profit of around $130,000.

Krause and Ennis denied Harper’s estimates of the revenues from HMUN India, though they did not provide their own estimates, citing confidentiality agreements in contracts with partners.

The International Relations Council is an umbrella groups for Harvard's Model United Nations organizations.
The International Relations Council is an umbrella groups for Harvard's Model United Nations organizations. By Julian J. Giordano

Harper also said that HMUN India was largely successful because the organization bought out a block of hotel rooms in bulk at a discounted price, then charged students a “small markup” on that price as part of their overall delegate fee. Ennis also denied this.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say specifically the hotel rooms specifically are marked up,” he said.

Yet ultimately the conferences’ profits — which come from the delegate fees collected from the participants, as well as corporate sponsorships — rely largely on the number of participants and their ability to pay the fee.

Ennis said that while the majority of the IRC’s profits come from its domestic conferences, the international conference delegate fees enable funding for the competitive traveling team’s activities, social events, and philanthropic programs.

Norris noted that because just a fraction of HMC’s revenue comes from the HUA, the monetary value of the conferences “absolutely does hold some weight.”

He added that the self-sustaining nature of the conferences was both “a blessing and a curse” that allowed the board financial flexibility but could also “cloud some of our judgment.”

‘High Barrier to Entry’

Several members of Harvard clubs that host international conferences said that the events typically attract a very particular set of attendees: students from prominent high schools with the wealth to pay for the experience.

Aspen L. Abner ’24, who will organize HMUN China 2024, said that because the conference’s advertising is typically in English, participants tend to be English speakers from international private schools in affluent urban centers.

Abner pointed to registration fees — which are around $529 — as a possible reason for the skew.

Harper said that when HMUN Australia was created, it was “explicitly pitched” as a conference that would “rely financially on Australian private schools because that’s the only way you can financially make that kind of thing work.”

IRC leadership, however, denied that the conference was pitched that way. They also noted that a local partner company handles marketing, advertising, and recruitment of delegates to conferences.

“I can’t speak to if our host team is specifically targeting Australian private schools. But our goal is not to target private schools to generate revenue,” Krause said.

To make travel and accommodations less prohibitive for students, several of the international conferences offer financial aid for attendees.

For HMUN China this year Abner said she has introduced fee waivers to help recruit participants from “lower income areas.”

According to Ennis, HMUN and HNMUN typically allocate 15-20 percent of their conference budget to their financial aid program — which includes waiving delegate fees or subsidizing hotel rooms or flights.

Yee said that this program is publicized in the conference policies, on social media, and among past participants.

The Student Organization Center at Hilles is a part of the Office of Student Engagement under Harvard College Dean of Students Office.
The Student Organization Center at Hilles is a part of the Office of Student Engagement under Harvard College Dean of Students Office. By Jina H. Choe

According to Norris, as part of HMC Asia’s goal to reach “majority public schools in the Asia Pacific region,” the board sets aside around 10 percent of the conference budget for financial aid — upwards of $10,000 a year — to “really try and get as diverse a delegate base as we can.”

However, the amount of financial aid awarded to attendees is conditional on the overall financial success of the club and conference. And for some clubs, the financial aid program can be the first to take a hit when the conference doesn’t generate enough profits to cover all the costs.

Chowdhury said that securing enough funding for HMC Middle East’s financial aid program has been “difficult,” because the conference does not generate a profit.

She added HMC Middle East typically makes back just enough to cover the conference costs and flights and housing for staffers, though “we do try to at least give two or three students some financial aid money.”

‘A Big Name’

In the summer after his freshman year of high school, Mike Yan ’27 attended a Harvard conference for high school students.

“I thought I could take some time to step out of my comfort zone, to join a program where I can connect with colleges — and of course, Harvard was a big name,” Yan said.

Now, Yan has come full circle. He is one of the staffers responsible for organizing the logistics of the Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China — a ten-day conference organized by the Harvard Association for U.S.-China Relations.

Yan wrote in a text message that at the time, he did not know the conference was entirely student-run, but “kind of suspected it” when Harvard students — not professors — taught seminars to high school attendees.

Several staffers and conference directors said in interviews that the Harvard name — especially the value of the brand abroad — was a crucial factor in drawing attendees to the conferences.

Kyle E. Neeley ’26, a director for HAUSCR, called Harvard “probably the biggest or most widely known brand in the entire world.”

“Especially in mainland China, the name of Harvard holds a lot of weight,” he said.

The Harvard name also plays a role in helping some organizations — like the IRC — secure partnerships with companies based in countries abroad, who share a portion of the profits in exchange for staffing or advertising, according to Ennis.

“The Harvard name does bring us a long way — especially internationally, especially amongst high schoolers when it comes to recruiting — and I think partners see that and want to find a way to capitalize off of that,” he said.

He added that the IRC’s contracts with partner companies are “zero-loss,” meaning the IRC avoids assuming any losses when their conferences are not profitable. Companies, in other words, trust HMUN or HNMUN’s reputation — and the Harvard name attached to them.

Yet students have more reasons to attend than mere prestige. According to Abner, though there is a “batch of students” who participate in conferences to boost their resume, there are others who have real interest in global issues.

Yan described his time at the conference in high school as “more of a resume padding experience,” but he said many of the high schoolers who he has since encountered as a staffer had different motivations.

“It’s more educational than resume or college padding,” Yan said. “A lot of students are not even looking to apply to U.S. colleges.”

Yee said the IRC’s HNMUN conferences are “definitely some of the most prestigious conferences on their respective circuits.”

Ilozue, the HNMUN Africa director, also pointed to the quality of the conferences.

“Our conferences are known around the world, really, for our directors being very good at what they do,” he said.

Angela Dela Cruz ’24, a former Crimson Multimedia editor who will lead HMUN Australia this summer, said that while she thinks the Harvard brand helps attract attendees, “there is still work to be done to maintain that reputation.”

“The Harvard name can only go so far,” Dela Cruz said.

—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at michelle.amponsah@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @mnamponsah.

—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at joyce.kim@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X at @joycekim324.

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