One of the worst fears that people have is public speaking. So imagine that you have to go to the front of the room, and not only do you have to share your opinion and viewpoints on a topic, but you also have to challenge someone else and tell them in front of an audience why their viewpoint is weak and why your position is stronger. Not scary at all, right?
But, it’s really not that scary. Not with good training and coaching and an understanding of forming good arguments. In the Speech & Debate program at Cornell University, we believe that everyone should have the fundamental skills of argumentation and debate. We believe that these are skills that lead to a better and more engaged society, no matter your age, background, skill level or experience. We see this mission as a privilege and a responsibility; and we learn the impact of these skills from none other than those with whom we teach and train.
This past year, we had the privilege of working with Janelle Vuong, currently a first-year high school student in Dryden, New York. Janelle was a day camper in Cornell’s 2017 International Summer Debate Camp as a Mayoral Scholarship recipient sponsored by the City of Ithaca Mayor’s Office. We had a chance to speak with Janelle after her experience and why she wants to now start her own debate club in her school. Here are the valuable lessons she learned.
1. It’s fun to learn something new even when it can be initially daunting
Janelle Vuong (JV): “I was excited about attending the International Summer Debate Camp at Cornell because I had seen debates before, but I had never done it myself or known anyone to do it. I was excited to try it out and to see what kind of experience it would be like; but, I was nervous because everyone there was older than me and they seemed to know more about it. I had no knowledge of debate. You have to be really comfortable and ready to go on the spot, talking about this topic. Once I started learning the skills and techniques, and started applying them in debates in front of my cohort, I realized the value of what I was learning and saw how fun it could really be!”
2. You meet great people and expand your understanding of the world
JV: “From the debate camp, the people were the best part. I got to meet so many brilliant and talented people who were super ambitious and really intelligent. Everyone really wanted to be there and to try to do our best. It was great meeting people from different cultures and how they view and think about different topics and situations.
Honestly, growing up in the world, you’re going to meet different people and not everyone is going to agree with you. If you are open-minded, you can think about their perspectives and points of views. We learned a lot about each other through debate. You pull a lot from those around you. If you respect and understand where they are coming from, you are really going to go far in life.”
3. You learn to not take things personally
JV: “One of the first things I learned was not to take things personally. During the final debate tournament, we were going against debaters who may have been older or more experienced than us; but, we learned to take it in stride. Even though we can make a heated and argument one minute, at the end of the debate while we were waiting for the judges’ decision, we would be out in the hallway having fun and joking. We’re not going to take it personally of course, because we know this is part of the learning process.”
4. If you want to be effective, you have to consider and think about others’ perspectives
JV: “It’s important to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. In the case with debate, it’s the opposing side. Debate forces you to look at the other side of things and to consider other perspectives. You have to find reasons for other points of view in order to support and advance your own side.
Before I went to the Cornell summer debate camp, I was a strong-headed person and it was hard for me to empathize with the other side. After the camp and learning how to debate, I think more about the different sides of a debate and what I’m arguing against and what evidence I have. Empathizing, remaining open-minded and learning to respect other people’s opinions and thoughts, these are very valuable traits.”
5. You learn how to have faith and confidence in yourself
JV: “One of the most important things I learned from the summer debate camp was learning to be confident and have faith in myself. During the first round of the final debate tournament, my team debated against a team of older campers, some of them three years older and with prior debate experience. They would tear apart our arguments which was intimidating. During this, even though we were really nervous debating them, we stayed calm – we realized we were still learning and that everything in the end was going to be alright. To our surprise, we ended up winning the debate. We were shocked and we were really relieved. We actually got through that. I guess we didn’t do as bad as they (the opposing team) made us believe.
This experience along with the teachings from the camp, taught me that no matter what your opponent may say, you still have to have faith in yourself. You still have to have confidence in yourself and keep debating. Because I learned how to speak with more confidence, I trusted myself more fully in making good arguments and providing evidence to support my position.”
6. It becomes something you can continue to improve on and share with others
JV: “From the summer debate camp, I took away many lessons with one being that this is something that I want to continue to practice and to share this with others. I wish I could provide others the opportunity to start learning debate as soon as they can, especially in high school when you are trying out different opportunities.
This is why I want to create a debate club in my school. Sometimes people can be a little bit too sheltered from the outside world and they might not meet enough people with different views. They may grow up in a place where people believe in the same thing or have the same beliefs. They may not learn how to be as open-minded and accept other viewpoints. They may not take the time to think of the reasoning behind other people’s arguments or maybe why they believe in some things. I want people to try out debate themselves even though they may not know what it is. Especially because you come away with such valuable knowledge and having confidence in yourself.”
7. It is an important and valuable lifelong skill
JV: “Debate is a very valuable skill that everyone should have. I believe that it will take you far in the world. Learning debate required that I learn how to speak more fluently, to put together arguments and to find evidence and reasons to support my arguments. I definitely became a more confident speaker and I learned how to think on my feet more. I was able to come up with thoughts much quicker and piece together my words much better than before.
Even though debate is essentially disagreeing with the other side, you find confidence in your own answers and evidence. In the process, you have to think about the other side and why they are doing the same thing. You have to look at their evidence and their beliefs. You learn two perspectives at the same time. You learn valuable life skills, and that’s really important.”