Photo Courtesy of the NYUAD Debate Union.

How Debate helped me find my Voice

Debate empowered my voice. It helped me effectively communicate and navigate difficult conversations. I am proud of myself for having come this far, and I hope to go further.

Mar 28, 2021

"Seven minutes? I can't speak for that long with only 15 minutes to prepare!"
Freshman fall, I recall sitting in a classroom as Nico, a senior leading the Debate Union, explained the British Parliamentary debating format to a group of first years. I remember my fear when I gave a seven minutes speech with little preparation. In the Debate Union tryouts a few weeks later, I crashed and burned. I was so nervous that my throat dried up before I started speaking. Points of information — questions asked by the competing teams during one’s speech — derailed me into a stream of non-answers and non-arguments.
Although I have always been outgoing in social interactions, I have never been fully confident in myself when meeting new people or talking on stage. Getting the jitters backstage is a very familiar feeling for me.
I understand why many would be intimidated by the idea of debating, as I was. Public speaking is already hard, add to it the competitive pressure and it seems impossible. That semester I never went to another practice. "Why bother?" I thought. "I am not nearly as good as the other debaters."
The next semester, I was unsure whether I should show up to the tryouts. However, some keen debaters convinced me that I only had a few hours to lose. By some stroke of luck, I performed better and qualified for a spot at a debate tournament in Bangalore, India. Even then, my throat dried up. I was uncomfortable during practices. However, I made an effort to learn the ropes and teamed up with Alper, another first year, and Akash, a third year student and experienced debater. As Akash recounted millions of times to everyone else, the first goal during prep time was to: "[Make] sure Ayan stopped stressing and started thinking."
I learned so much through that experience. We won the Novice division of the tournament, which was only the second trophy for the NYU Abu Dhabi Debate Union. We felt ecstatic. Rewarded for all of the nervousness I had gone through, I felt recharged.
Bit by bit, every time I gave a speech in practice sessions, I grew more confident in my abilities. Workshops and webcasts helped me understand particular issues more comprehensively. I participated in three more tournaments, which were instrumental in my journey to becoming a better debater. Much of what we did in practices was low stakes and meant for learning, so tournaments were the real catalysts in my journey. I would spend a few days doing rounds one after another, with little time in between. After every round, I would reflect on what I could have done better. It enabled me to refine and improve my next attempt, which was usually immediately afterwards. Eventually, the seven minute speeches started feeling shorter and shorter. Even when I didn’t win, the feedback by judges and improvements from simply going to a tournament were worth the time and effort.
The lessons from these experiences are not restricted to debate — sure, I learned how to structure a whip, respond to the speech of the last speaker, and compete with four teams in the same room, but I also learned to structure my arguments well and make them understandable. I grasped the subtleties of relying on assertions as opposed to providing enough analysis to prove a point. I discovered that you do not have to tongue-tie your opponents; effective rebuttal can rely on attacking anything from their fundamental premise to the supporting examples to the analysis in between. Time became much more valuable; it was important to prioritize content. Debate empowered me to use my voice. It helped me effectively communicate and navigate difficult conversations. I am able to frame problems and structure situations better. I can think on my feet and answer questions more effectively.
Equally importantly, I am more open to other people's voices and think objectively about their arguments. If what I said was not as strong as the other arguments on the table, I can take a step back from my biases. Previously, I was unwilling to give up my positions in heated arguments. Being a debater sometimes made it harder, since I am used to defending my position no matter what. But eventually I stopped thinking of myself as a debater in those situations and more as an adjudicator. It was helpful to look at things for what they are.
I served as the Economics representative in the Student Government and worked on the Student Finance Working Group the past two semesters. I drew extensively on my debating skills to construct persuasive arguments to advocate for students. I am one of the most indecisive people I know. Yet, sometimes, having a mini debate in my head helps me think objectively. I am more sure of myself and have become more confident in my decision making.
As much as debating is an individualistic activity, I credit the upper class students who created a nurturing environment in the Debate Union at NYUAD that helped me grow. Partnering up with experienced debaters gave me insights into how I could approach tournaments better. Many were interested in fostering a healthy environment for everyone. For that, I am very grateful.
Gaining confidence in debate has also motivated me to pay it forward. I want to do my part in making sure that the next generation of debaters from NYUAD can also achieve their potential. I know that I am still not the best debater I could be. However, I am proud of myself for having come this far, and I hope to go further.
Ayan Marwaha is a contributing writer. Email him at
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