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Debating Career Change: International debate inspires former Modesto grad

Brian ShipleySometimes life takes a u-turn when you least expect it. Former Modesto resident and Willamette University graduate, Brian Shipley, thought he had his life planned out. He'd go to law school and become a big-time lawyer. He probably would have, too--if he hadn't gone to Slovakia and found his true vocation.

The Beyer honor student had always been interested in debate. At Willamette University, where he studied political science, Shipley became a debate champ. He also had a keen interest in politics and worked for two Oregon state representatives. Becoming a lawyer seemed a natural career choice. Last summer, after two grueling years, he received his law degree from Georgetown University. Finally, he was a lawyer. Prestigious law firms began calling, offering jobs. Then his former Willamette debate professor, Robert Trapp, asked if he wanted to go to Slovakia for 10 days to teach debate. There was no money for a salary, Trapp told him, but it would be a worthwhile experience. Why not, the young lawyer thought. It would be fun, an adventure. Shipley had no idea his choice would be life-changing.

"Teaching in Slovakia opened my mind about the world," Shipley says. "I taught debate to a group of 24 high school students and teachers from formerly communist countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Because debate is a tool of democracy, teaching these students to debate will help make democracy happen in these countries."

Not that long ago, Shipley would have been imprisoned or even shot for teaching students to talk about controversial international issues in Eastern Europe. Debate and the free exchange of ideas that characterize it is a relatively new concept in formerly communist countries like Albania, Belarus, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Slovakia, Uzbekistan and many others. Until very recently, education behind the Iron Curtain involved mostly rote learning. Teachers would teach "facts" and students would repeat those facts on exams. People like Brian Shipley and organizations like the U.S. National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) and the International Debate Education Association (IDEA) are changing all that.

Creating such a fundamental shift hasn't been easy. In Solvakia, Shipley found he had to teach his Eastern European students debate basics--how to research, how to frame an argument, how to tailor the argument to the audience. "These kids are extremely intelligent," Shipley says. "They're knowledgeable about domestic issues and they're interested in international issues. They're very passionate. However, they lack experience and expertise."

Because many of Shipley's students come from poor, war-torn countries, they also lack the resources to research debate topics. In many countries, there are few, if any, library resources and access to the Internet is limited. Media sources may be biased or unavailable.

Perhaps most importantly, Shipley had to teach his students that it's ok--ee--tven valuablo have and to express ideas and opinions. "Many of these students have been taught that debate is dangerous and disruptive," he says. "They feel powerless and they don't think they can make a difference. It's important for them to learn that they can have opinions and to express those opinions eloquently."

Shipley is convinced that teaching debate skills transforms lives. He's seen the proof in his own students. "Learning debate and critical thinking skills empowers students and gives them confidence," he insists. "As they learn to get their point across more effectively, they feel more powerful and more in control."

At the Slovakia debate tournament, Shipley's guidance paid off. Two of the groups he coached advanced to the quarterfinals. One group went on to earn second place in the finals. Another of his students earned the Best Speaker trophy.

It's July in Novy Sacz, Poland, and the countryside around the little town is verdant, bursting with green. The debates are over for the day. Brian and a group of students and teachers from Romania, Hungary, Moldova and a dozen other countries stroll down the narrow streets looking for a place for dinner. At a local restaurant, they push tables together, their group nearly filling the small space. None of the waiters speak English, so the Polish students help order food. Local fare arrives, steaming plates heaped with potatoes, cabbage, beets and pork sausage. Stubby bottles of local beer are passed around.

The group's laughter fills the restaurant late into the night. Coffee and beer fuel the conversation. A Romanian student tells about growing up during the Revolution. Her parents worked for the government that was under siege. She was just a young child, but she worried every day that her parents would be assassinated by rebels.

Another student talks about members of her family being shot to death during an uprising. On that corner, her uncle was killed by sniper fire. Across from the bakery, her brother died. Over by the building that used to house the library, her grandfather was gunned down.

Shipley traveled to Eastern Europe as a teacher. He didn't realize the students would become his teachers. "My students showed me how powerful teaching debate is," he says, his eyes shining with excitement. "With debate skills, these students can make a difference. I realized that I can help create new leaders in countries that desperately need good leaders."

Suddenly, for Shipley, becoming a big-time lawyer had lost its glow.

Someone orders a final round of beer. Despite the painful stories, these young people laugh and joke easily. A student from Slovakia asks another about his country's money. The young man pulls out some crumpled bills and a few coins. Within moments, bills and coins from dozens of nations litter the table, a rainbow of blues, greens, pinks, purples, oranges, browns and yellows. There are coins and bills with classical portraits of saints, politicians, composers, writers, poets and painters, images of elegant ballet dancers and fruit and flowers, pictures of animals, stately buildings and fierce warriors on horseback. The money becomes cherished souvenirs. Slovakian koruns are traded for leks from Albania. Romanian leis are exchanged for kunas from Croatia. Macedonian denars change hands for U.S. dollars.

Since his return from Solvakia, Shipley has coached and traveled with the debate team at Willamette and he's working on an environmental issues resource book for debaters. He's helped Professor Trapp host Willamette University's annual summer debate conference and he's organizing the U.S. national debate championship to be held in a few months in Portland. He's also applied to a teacher exchange program that would enable him to teach debate in Eastern Europe next year.

After that? Shipley's students have inspired him to return to school. He's headed back for a Ph.D. so he can teach debate full time. "I love teaching students to communicate more effectively," he says. "Instead of just writing up legal briefs, I can teach people skills that can make a difference. That's way more important. Don't you think?"

Shipley's parents, Robert and Kathy, who live in Modesto, at first weren't so sure about their son's career decision. "Of course, they were excited about the offers I was getting for jobs with law firms," Shipley admits. "These firms were willing to pay me tons of money."

And now? "It took a little bit of convincing, but my parents are supportive," Shipley says. "They know that this is what I really want to do."

The hour is late. The debates start again early in the morning. As they wind through the streets toward the dormitories, Brian Shipley fingers the 100 rublei he received from a student from Belarus. He slips the keepsake into his pocket and smiles. For Shipley, the memories are worth a king's ransom.