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Image courtesy of NYUAD Debate Union

Profiling NYUAD’s Debate Union

The NYUAD Debate Union is an opportunity for students who want to develop constructive arguments and critical thinking.

At around 7 p.m. on a Monday night, if you happen to wander into those tucked away rooms at the east end of Campus Center, you will likely encounter NYU Abu Dhabi students debating on a wide range of topics. You might see an animated Benjamin Roberts, Class of 2021, bouncing around the room, coming up with counterpoints, or just engaging in his particular form of psychological warfare: point of information. Although Roberts is definitely an entertaining part of attending NYUAD’s Debate Union practices, the two-hour time slot also provides an engaging and active way to develop public speaking skills or just to enjoy yourself while passionately arguing with your peers.
The Debate Union, a class-Student Interest Group hybrid, was first started by John Coughlin who now heads the Legal Studies department. After several years mentoring the students and taking them to competitions, Coughlin stepped back and the Union became increasingly student-run. As of fall 2018, Nicolaj Thor, Class of 2019, is Debate Union President and Herbert Crowther and Benjamin Roberts, both Class of 2021, are Co-Vice Presidents.
In contrast to other debate-oriented SIGs on campus, the Debate Union practices in the British Parliamentary style. In British Parliamentary debate there are four teams of two people each: two teams of government and two of opposition. The first two speakers on both sides are called opening government and opening opposition. Similarly, the last two speakers for both sides are called closing government and closing opposition. All teams have 15 minutes to prepare their arguments for or against the motion they are given.
This style of debate requires participants to think quickly and approach motions from multiple sides. Teams learn to work together and play to each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.
“It can be pretty intimidating to somebody who is new … the whole idea is that you only have 15 minutes to prepare. [It] doesn't matter if you're an expert in this or if you are totally new … you have to be ready to discuss the best arguments for your side,” commented Rachel Jamison, a lawyer who coaches the NYUAD Debate Union.
Although the style is very competitive and tough to learn, Jamison believes it has strong benefits for students who choose to participate.
“I think that [debate] really trains students well intellectually and really makes people become more open-minded as well, because suddenly when you have 15 minutes and you have to defend a position which you have never thought of before, maybe you completely disagree with it,” said Jamison.
The practices are open to anyone who wishes to drop by and try their hand at debating. Rachel Jamison believes that debate allows students to practice their public speaking skills and critical thinking skills, which will assist them in their academic pursuits.
Every semester, the Debate Union holds tryouts for the competitive team which travels internationally to debate in tournaments. Jamison points out that even if people don’t make the team, the practices will still help them develop their skills so they can try later on.
“Nobody's a great debater when they start. You know you have to start somewhere and we want new people to come and try it out and think if you like it, or this is something I want to improve my skills on,” remarked Jamison.
“I'd love to see more students come and try out even if they never travel internationally, but just that they come to practices and they want to develop their skills.”
Debate can also broaden the mind of those who participate, forcing them to look at issues from a fresh perspective or from positions that they disagree with. The style of the NYUAD Debate Union also makes you realize that sometimes picking up a newspaper is a good idea, just to learn more about what is going on in the world.
“Debate is very humbling in that it forces you to realize that you don't know everything,” said Roberts about the benefits of joining the Debate Union.
The competitive team is currently composed of members from the Class of 2019 to the Class of 2022, hailing from all parts of the world and all levels of experience.
Thor, who recently placed first speaker overall at a Mumbai tournament, has been credited by his coach as greatly improving since his very first speech.
“I joined my freshman spring; I was just put in the debate and I had to figure out how it works … I really enjoyed thinking about topics that I usually don't think about [such as] very, very abstract moral debates or policy issues from the perspective that I usually don't think about,” said Thor concerning his debate experience.
“I started wanting to become more involved in sophomore year so then I became Vice President and helped out with different kinds of programs.” Thor is now enjoying his second term as Debate Union president.
Roberts and Crowther are known to work well together, despite their differences in speaking style. Dropping by practices you’ll see them in action, with Crowther maintaining his calm and serious demeanor while Roberts practically bounces off the walls with chaotic energy.
“Herbert's like my guardian in a way because I always forget really critical things like my passport,” said Roberts of their partnership.
Matea Kocevska, Class of 2020, and Tami Gjorgjieva, Class of 2019, are the Macedonian superstars of the team. Njomza Selmani, Class of 2022, is the only freshman on the team and in the Mumbai competition placed second with her partner Pranaav Parth, Class of 2021. The rest of the team is made up of Jumana Ibrahim and Abdul Kareem Kamran, both Class of 2021, Penny Peng, Class of 2019, Christian Duborg, Class of 2020, and Chris Wheeler, Class of 2019.
Thor is impressed by his fellow teammates. “The speakers we have are incredibly talented. And over the years we can teach them more and more and try to improve,” he pointed out.
The competitive team travels frequently throughout the academic year, going to competitions all over Europe and Asia. In the fall 2018 semester, the team has gone to India and China, where they made it to finals and placed well in terms of individual speakers. Some of the notable locations for competitions include Hong Kong, Greece, England, Poland, Spain and Malaysia.
Jamison and Thor both see great things in the future of the Debate Union. The SIG also hosts a tournament for Abu Dhabi high schools that consists of two weekends: one to train them in the style of debate as well as critical thinking and one to actually compete.
“We want to develop debate in Abu Dhabi and the UAE and we think that's a niche no other institution in the UAE really can have such big impact,” said Thor.
The Debate Union hopes to host the World Championships within the next ten years. The culture of debate persists throughout the world and is critical in a liberal arts university that aims to produce leaders for the global stage. Aside from providing a space for students to practice their speaking skills, the Debate Union is preparing them for a life that will most likely involve lots of arguments. So, as Jamison put it, if you like “discussing politics, history, current events and debating the morality and the ethics of things,” the Debate Union might be the place for you.
Mari Velasquez-Soler is Deputy News Editor. Email her at
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