The competition was tough, and they loved it

Oakland debaters in NYC. Photo courtesy of Christopher Scheer

Four of the top debaters from the Bay Area Urban Debate League went head-to-head with some of the best in the nation in New York City last month. The league’s coaches sent me the below news release about the experience. My favorite quote was from Skyline student Zach Seidl: “Getting absolutely destroyed by an opponent was actually the high point of the trip for me.”

Four Oakland public high school debaters representing the Bay Area Urban Debate League returned from the Big Apple with a renewed belief in themselves and the power of debate to carry them forward in life.

“It changed the way I see myself, because I saw how far I have gotten and how much I have improved,” said Diego Garcia, a sophomore at Media Academy on the Fremont High campus, of his experience debating at the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues Championships held April 15-17 at Hunter College. “I learned that you have to try your best in order to not only win, but also to make it a fun learning experience as well.”

Garcia was joined on the long road trip by his debate partner and sister, Jazmin Garcia, a junior. The pair went 3-2 against the best debaters from 19 urban debate leagues around the country, narrowly missing “breaking” into the single-elimination octofinals. Nevertheless, it was an impressive showing for two students from a school more famous for the shootings that take place on the surrounding mean streets than the intellectual pyrotechnics which happen inside its gates.

“I am honored to be able to coach such dedicated, intelligent, and motivated students as they continue to move toward their bright futures as debaters,” said Catherine Kuhn, a Skyline biology teacher and Fremont’s co-coach, along with Media Academy history teacher Laima Heider. “Their hundreds of hours of research and effort really paid off.”

The Garcia siblings were accompanied by Zach Seidl and Greg Belvin, juniors from Skyline High School. While the two struggled to find wins in their first journey to nationals, finishing 1-4, they so impressed judges with their argumentation and speaking skills that both took home prestigious gavel awards – Belvin as the 10th best speaker at the tournament and Seidl as the 12th best. Out of 39 pairs, the duo combined for the fifth-best speaker point total at the tournament.

Both said they hope to come back and do better next year, en route to earning debate scholarships. “I came to win, but I didn’t leave disappointed,” said Belvin.

Seidl agreed that losing to some of the nation’s best debaters was a great learning experience.

“Getting absolutely destroyed by an opponent was actually the high point of the trip for me,” he said. “It provided quick ‘do-or-die’ on-the-job training. The education in that [debate] round was magnificent.”

The Bay Area Urban Debate League (BAUDL) was founded three years ago in collaboration with the Oakland Unified School District. Since then, it has grown to San Francisco and Emeryville, hosting seven tournaments and a week-long free Summer institute each year. It is open to all schools in those districts who have high levels of socio-economically “at-risk” students – schools which traditionally have not been able to support debate teams.

“Through my ten years in public education I have seen hundreds of students transform their lives through debate,” says Dmitri Seals, Acting Executive Director of the BAUDL. “The four young stars who joined us on this trip are the leading edge of a movement of young people using debate to achieve success in school and in college, but also to become the leaders we so desperately need to help us navigate the serious problems ahead.”

Already, the league can point to multiple alumni who credit it with paving a path to college and beyond, according to Skyline’s coach, Christopher Scheer. “It is great to be able to show how kids from ‘the ghetto’ can succeed at a sport more associated with white males arguing at Harvard or Oxford than minority youth arguing in flatland Oakland,” he said.

“Our graduates are already coming back and telling the kids coming after them to stay focused and have fun debating and that it will pay off,” said Scheer. “That is priceless – so much more powerful than hearing it from us teachers.”

This past month, in fact, east Oakland’s Rashid Campbell, who graduated from Skyline last year and is debating on a full-ride scholarship at the University of Oklahoma, managed a second place finish at a the CEDA Junior Varsity National Championships.

“I am continually amazed with the way that the [BAUDL] organization continues to grow stronger and train such awesome young people,” said OU coach and former national champion Blake Johnson. As a former executive director of BAUDL, Johnson came out to New York for the NAUDL event. “As a college debate coach, I was tremendously impressed with the way that Oakland’s students and their coaches performed.”

As part of its mission to support the development of urban debate leagues across the country, the NAUDL pays all travel and hotel room expenses for four student debaters and two coaches from each member league. In the BAUDL, coaches voted on which debating pairs would represent the league nationally.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Oakland Teacher

    Thanks for sharing their experience. Bravo to the students!