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Charlotte "Charli" HancockCharlotte "Charli" Hancock

Three Willamette Debaters Win International Honors

Charlotte "Charli" Hancock, Alex Dukalskis and Matt Lehman have been named grand champions in college-level international debate tournaments in Minske, Belarus and Vilnus, Lithuania. Hancock, a senior majoring in politics and rhetoric, won the grand championship title in Minske, with her teammate, Sergi, from Latvia. She is from Indianola, Wash. Dukalskis, a senior politics major from Roseburg, Ore., and his debate partner, Matt Lehman, a junior politics major from Coos Bay, won top honors at the tournament in Lithuania.

The three were members of a team of eight Willamette University debate students who traveled to Eastern Europe in March to compete with 28 other two-person teams from 12 countries, including Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, Romania and Germany, among others. Each year, the rhetoric department takes its top debate students to Eastern European countries. The purpose isn't to win, but to enjoy the cultural exchange. "It's a rich cultural experience," explains Professor Robert Trapp, who led the team. This is the third year he's taken Willamette debaters to Eastern Europe. "Our kids really like it. It's a way to break down national barriers and create world citizens."

Hancock won top honors at the Minske tournament with an Eastern European teammate she'd met only 45 minutes prior to the competition. "The unique thing about how Willamette approaches these tournaments is that we're allowed to pair with someone from Eastern Europe," explains Hancock. "Other American schools at the tournament decided to pair only with people from their own school."

At the Minske competition, Lehman debated with a student from Poland, which he says proved "really interesting. The reason we went to Eastern Europe was to meet people from other cultures."

When Dukalskis debated with a student from Belarus, he says he learned a great deal about that country. "Belarus is a really restrictive society," he says. "The KGB still operates there. While they have an elected president, it's basically a dictatorship. If you oppose the government, you end up in prison or disappear."

Traveling to Eastern Europe in March where the temperature averaged -11 degrees Fahrenheit proved challenging for students more accustomed to the Pacific Northwest's relatively mild weather. "It was incredibly cold," Hancock says. "There were three or four feet of snow on the ground. Everything was white and so cold it was hard to think about anything else."

Professor Trapp says the cold nearly stopped them in their tracks in route from Belarus to Latvia. "We were on a bus and had to stop at a gas station because the fuel was freezing and the bus kept dying," he says. "We had to take all these little back roads to get to this little town where they put something - kerosene I think - into the tank to lower the freezing point."

In addition to the cold, Hancock says not speaking Russian proved daunting. "When we were traveling from Vilnus, Lithuania to Minske, we went by train," she says. "A woman directing us who spoke only English yelled at me because she wanted my ticket and Professor Trapp had our tickets. It was really scary."

During the competition, Lehman says not speaking Russian was challenging. "Because of the language barrier, I had to speak slowly," he says. "I couldn't argue as many points because I had to explain everything in depth so that they could understand it."

Rather than frustrating him, Lehman says the language barrier was a wake-up call about the importance of learning other languages. "The rest of the world focuses more on learning languages than we do," he says. "It doesn't matter if you know all about a country's monetary fund if you can't speak their language. I learned that language is culturally important. It has definitely made me want to learn a language other than English."

The international debate experience has also changed the students' world view. "We talk about Africa as a whole, Europe as a whole and Asia as a whole, but they aren't," Lehman says. "In Europe, there are at least 30 distinctly different countries that have their own individual cultures."

Dukalskis, whose father is from Latvia and runs nonprofit eye clinic in Rega, Latvia, paired the debate trip with a week in his dad's home country. "My first trip to Latvia was in 1996 when I was 13," he says. "This time I saw that huge changes had occurred. They're developing and becoming Westernized very quickly. It was like seeing a time lapse."

So what's next for these Willamette debate champs? Hancock says her experience in Eastern Europe has "definitely peaked my interest in living abroad. I have the ability to be flexible and feel comfortable in new situations. I've taken the foreign service exam and ultimately, I'd like to be an international ambassador."

Dukalskis has just been awarded a Fulbright Grant to teach English in Korea. He leaves in July for an intensive Korean language training program at Kangwon National University in Chuncheon, Korea.

Lehman says he still wants to go into politics, but now perhaps with an international flair. "I'd like to do some international work," he says. "I'd like to go to law school, but the Peace Corps would be an interesting experience."