Many college students’ winter breaks include some sort of travelling, whether to a foreign country, or just somewhere a train ride or road trip away. Less often does this almost six-week stretch of time comprised of a nearly 24-hour plane ride and the opportunity to go to one place where there are people from over 90 nations.
On Dec. 27, three students from the Vassar Debate Society arrived at the Worlds Debate Tournament in Malaysia where they would test their prowess against teams from around the world.
Of these was Hannah Matsunaga ’16, who wrote in an emailed statement, “[Sophia Pictairn ’16, Max Moran ’16 and I] were chosen as representatives because of our performance at previous tournaments and commitment to the team.”
The Vassar Debate Society tries to send a team to the Worlds Debate Tournament at least every other year. However, the Worlds tournament uses British Parliamentary style debate, which is not common in the Vassar’s team regular competition circuit in Northeast United States. This style of debate includes four teams of two speakers each with a first proposition, a first opposition, a second proposition, and a second opposition. Matsunaga explained, “Sophia and Max spent the first weekend of October break in Toronto at the Hart House IV, one of North America’s biggest and most prestigious British Parliamentary tournaments.” There, they gained experience in the style of debate they would encounter in Malaysia. At a smaller tournament on the east coast, Matsunaga made finals on a hybrid team. In addition to practicing a different debate style, Pictairn, Matsunaga, and Moran kept up on current events and had weekly meetings to practice.
Though the debate team put in many hours of preparation, the tournament was about more than ranking well internationally. Sophia Pitcairn added, “A lot of prominent U.S. teams attend this tournament every year, including a lot of schools who we regularly interact with on the debate circuit, so it’s important that we make a good impression by competing well on the international circuit.” Many previous Vassar debate teams have placed well in world tournaments of years past, even making finals in 1994 in Australia. This year’s team lived up to the successful standard by placing, Pitcairn noted. “[We placed] in the top half of about 350 of the world’s top debating teams,” she said.
Competing with teams from Namibia, Australia, South Africa, Poland, Germany, Serbia, Hong Kong, Malaysia and more allowed for Vassar’s debate team to experience different topic approaches from cultural differences on issues such as family and urbanization. Pitcairn said “It made for more complex and exciting rounds as the issues weren’t always approached from a Western, American based framework.” From the debates themselves, Pitcairn said, “Hannah and I learned a lot from hitting so many different teams so we were able to engage with new speaking styles and approaches to argumentation that we don’t tend to come across in the American circuit.”
Though Debate team member Colin Crilly ’15 did not attend worlds this year, he added that encountering different styles and perspectives is hugely beneficial to any debater. “I think that international tournaments offer the greatest possibility for debaters at Vassar to network with individuals from all over the world who carry unique ideologies and principles that may challenge their own. By engaging with these people both in and out of rounds, one can become a more critical thinker and develop a greater ability to communicate and convey their opinions,” he wrote in an emailed statement. Crilly recounted one experience he had while participating in debate while abroad in Cambridge. He continued, “I argu[ed] with a Swedish debater about whether or not the United States needs a Green Party. It made me reconsider the values that I may instinctively ascribe to having grown up in the United States for my entire life.”
On a collective level, the teams were able to discuss logistics such as how they run debate team practices and how they manage their finances. Pitcairn explained, “Even though in the rounds it gets very competitive, once the round was over it was great getting to just meet everyone else and talk about our experiences with debate, school, and travel.”
“[Competing] did a lot of my ability to craft good arguments and deliver eloquent speeches,” said Matsunaga. The team plans to use skills—or rather “shamelessly copy,” as Matsunaga put it—and tips picked up from other debates to improve their capabilities at future tournaments, as well as try out some new practice techniques.
Outside of the tournament itself, the team members had the opportunity to explore the cities where they were competing. During a 23-hour layover in Seoul, South Korea, they got to do some sightseeing on their down time. Throughout the debate team’s stay in Malaysia, Pictairn said, “On the days we had free we took some time to explore [Kuala Lumpur], visiting some of the main markets, passing through the National Mosque, visiting the KL bird park, and visiting the Museum of Islamic Art.”
Matsunaga concluded, “Worlds is probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done. There were people from 92 countries present, and it was really fantastic to be able to engage with people from all over the world competitively and intelligently.”