When Las Vegan Allie Ryerson was deciding which university to attend, she had multiple choices — she was an excellent student. She’d competed on debate teams since the seventh grade, and knew she wanted to pursue it in college. So when she was offered a scholarship to participate on the UNLV Debate Team, her college decision was clear.
“It is actually the biggest reason why I chose to attend UNLV,” said Ryerson, who is now a senior majoring in accounting with a minor in public policy.
“Debate has been the most formative experience in my life,” she added. “Throughout my debate career, I have developed critical thinking and public speaking skills that I use in both my scholastic and professional life.”
Ryerson specializes in tax consulting and already has received an offer to work at the firm Deloitte after graduation.
Academic enrichment programs like debate help UNLV attract top students. And, as culture wars rage worldwide, and oversimplified, meme-based arguments about topics ranging from Black Lives Matter to whether we should wear masks dominate discourse online, the UNLV Debate Team is building thoughtful adults like Ryerson who are equipped with skills that seem desperately in need.
“Debate has taught me how to actually evaluate and respond to arguments rather than defaulting to caustic and aggressive communication,” Ryerson said.
But in times of economic crisis, many donors shift their philanthropic investments to help shore up a community’s basic needs, including food and shelter. The nationally respected team relies on donor support for scholarships, travel, and technology such as laptops. The team is housed in the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs.
Last year the team defeated Harvard, Cal Berkeley, Cornell, Dartmouth, Northwestern, University of Michigan, Wake Forest University, Emory University, and many others. In 2018, it also won the prestigious Cal Berkeley tournament.
“In my biased opinion, debate is magical,” said UNLV Debate Coach Jacob Thompson, “because it changes you intellectually in ways other activities don’t. Most importantly, you have to learn to think about issues on all sides and understand why each of those approaches could be right. You have to learn how to represent each side the best you can.
“We could use more of that, couldn’t we?” he asked. “It’s important in the moment we are in right now.”
Another key skill students hone in debate is listening. “If you don’t understand the other team’s arguments, you can’t debate well.”
Max Reese, another debate team member, said that debate not only has increased their confidence and speaking ability, “but has also allowed me to form better ideas about the world I want to live in — one where everyone has a genuine and equitable chance to flourish and live freely without fear of harm from others (in any form).
“Debate transformed me from a shy, nervous, ignorant-to-my-surroundings kid into a loud, proud, and fierce activist whenever I can be of service,” Reese said.
This year will be different for the team due to COVID-19. Many of their competitions will be virtual, rather than face-to-face in a room with a judge. “Though it is better than no debate,” Ryerson said, “you miss out on the personal connection and persuasion that you can get out of in-person debate. I think that the non-verbal (cues from a debate opponent) and ability to have face-to-face communication are incredibly important.”
On the other hand, much of public discourse takes place online today, so perhaps new skills will be sharpened.
The Debate Team is fundraising to pay for the technology they’ll need, and always is in need of donors to support scholarships, which can be a great recruiting tool for top-tier students.
But the real business of debating will remain the same: To build excellence in research and the ability to make valid, logical points orally in a limited amount of time.
“Debate isn’t a panacea, but it produces good thinkers in all lines of work — from law to communications to accounting — and it equips you to turn data into knowledge,” said Thompson. “We can always use smart negotiators — especially in our world today.”