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Students on debate team get their point across

by Linda Lenhoff,

Debate students

Student members of Willamette University Debate Union choose their words carefully — and successfully, as is indicated by their current record of wins. 

Debate students
From left: Jonathan Cook BA'24, Gage Brock BA'24, Amanda Padgett BA'25 and Danika House BA'26. photo above: Padgett and Brock.

About 20 students from a variety of majors come together for virtual and in-person tournaments across the country to argue about world events, with only 15 minutes’ notice about the day’s topic. They need to think fast and speak persuasively, qualities they’ll be able to use well beyond college life.

Coached this year by Juvenile Public Defender Kyle Sessions JD’21, the team has attended six tournaments and been finalists in three, with several students earning individual speaker awards. Its new American Moot Court Association team attended a regional competition in Chicago and placed in the top 10, to the satisfaction of the first-year coach.

“I do this because as a young debater, it was the single most transformative experience in my life,” says Sessions. “All of my educational success can be traced back to skills I learned in debate: confidence, public speaking, research, writing, persuasion, and advocacy. Understanding the foundation of human learning — argument — will set students up for great careers and lives,” he said.

Team captain and teacher’s assistant Amanda Padgett BA’25 loves working with the team. “I think this is a wonderful program,” she said. “The biggest thing students get out of this is probably getting comfortable with public speaking, working on argumentation, and keeping up with current news."

But she’s really there for the people. “The community that Debate Union provides, just meeting people, being able to travel and meet other kids who are interested in those sorts of current events, is really special,” she added.

And there’s plenty to argue about. “We’ve argued a lot of topics, including international relations, American politics, and even some science fiction topics,” she says. That’s right: Students were asked to argue pro or con. “If we discovered an alien species, this house the people in this room) would interact with it,” Padgett added.  

About 20 students participate in Debate Union, which was established in 1856, making it the oldest debate program in the Western United States. They use the British Parliament (aka Worlds) style of arguing, in which one team of two students argues pro and another team argues con. Each teammate argues for seven minutes.

The Debate Union offers scholarships to incoming first-year students from $1,500 to $4,000. Padgett says it’s great for students who are trying to find a community and/or work on their public speaking.

Now’s the time to join, as the team is definitely ramping up. “We are rebuilding participation and relearning the in-person formats,” says Sessions. “But our success goals have been realized in just the first year I have been here.”

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