Young Talent Helps Give Debate Team a Convincing Edge This Season

Debate team

Members of the 2017-18 debate team pose with director Scott Herndon (left) and coach Jacob Lehr (right). Members include (front row, from left) Alex Baez, Gabriel Sanchez, Rafael Sanchez and Ragya Kaul; (back row, standing) Evan Gilbert, Ali Rizvi and Brandon Johnson.

UT Dallas freshman Ragya Kaul may spend all her free time honing her skills as a member of the debate team, but she thinks it’s well worth it.

Where else but preparing for a rapid-fire debate can you gain critical thinking skills, process information faster and learn how to advocate for both sides of an issue?

“Debate teaches you the skills you need to be successful: how to be a public speaker, how to think like an attorney and how to do problem-solving on the fly at a rapid pace. It enhances whatever you decide to do,” said Kaul, an international political economy and global business double major who hopes to work for women’s rights with a nonprofit government organization.

Kaul, who was a high school debater in Reno, Nevada, teamed up with neuroscience sophomore Ali Rizvi of Frisco, Texas, in the first tournament of the season, Sept. 15-18 in Kansas City, Missouri, where 80 teams competed.

Other debate team members who competed were Gabriel and Rafael Sanchez, Brandon Johnson and Alex Baez; and Evan Gilbert, who debated solo.

UT Dallas accumulated a record of 4-4 in the preliminary rounds of the University of Missouri, Kansas City tournament with wins over two teams from the University of Texas at Austin, California State University, Fullerton, and Johnson County (Kansas) Community College, good enough to advance as the 20th seed to face West Virginia University.

The team defeated WVU on a 3-0 decision, but lost its next elimination debate on a 2-1 decision to the University of Central Oklahoma, one of the top teams in the country. UT Dallas finished in the octofinals and tied for 9th place overall.

Kaul and Rizvi

Freshman Ragya Kaul and sophomore Ali Rizvi say being part of the debate team gives them skills that transfer well to other academic areas, including critical thinking, analysis and public speaking.

Rizvi, who admits he was always argumentative as a kid, said the debate skills he has learned have transferred well to other academic areas. For example, his word vocabulary and critical thinking skills have increased “exponentially” since he began debating as a sophomore at Hebron High School in Carrollton, Texas.

“My grades and essay skills have definitely gone up because I’ve learned how to more effectively read scholarly articles and be able to talk about it. Debate helps you to analyze data really quickly, and the research skills are very applicable,” said Rizvi, who hopes to enter the medical field and focus on space exploration research.

Scott Herndon, director of the debate team, said the team may be young, but its members shouldn’t be underestimated.

“We’re very young, with only one graduating senior, but I’m excited. Students mature a lot between freshman and sophomore year. Somewhere in there they feel the clock ticking and begin to realize they can only do this for so many years,” Herndon said.

The debate team at UT Dallas is part of the Hobson Wildenthal Honors College. Members are mostly pre-law and public policy students. They receive scholarships, and their average GPA is over 3.5.

And they work hard. They spend 15 to 20 hours each week prepping and practicing, plus their travel time to competitions. Kaul spends three to four hours a day on practice rounds and research assignments.

“It sounds really nerdy, but I like finding those little nuggets in research to present an argument,” Kaul said.

Debaters also focus on speaking and efficiency drills. They will speak about 350 words per minute during timed debates, which Herndon describes as “a high-speed, 3-D version of chess.”

UT Dallas focuses on switch-side policy debate in which teams of two students advocate for and against a resolution that usually calls for a change in policy by the federal government. This year’s topic: the merits of a single-payer system for national health care insurance.

Arguing both sides of an issue gives debaters a greater sense of open-mindedness, Rizvi said.

“You learn that every fact you hold to be true needs to be contested. The most important thing is it helps you avoid dogmatism, which can lead to dangerous things,” Rizvi said.

Herndon is proud of the team’s record of 14 consecutive qualifications to the National Debate Tournament.

“These consecutive qualifications are rare and speak to the overall consistency and strength of the program. With peer competition like Harvard, Dartmouth, Northwestern, UT and Michigan, it says a lot that we regularly and successfully run with those schools,” Herndon said.

The fall schedule includes tournaments at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada on Oct. 21-23, Gonzaga University on Oct. 28, the University of Central Oklahoma on Nov. 3 and Wake Forest University on Nov. 10. UT Dallas will host its tournament on Jan. 3.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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