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How debating helps refugees find success in Utah

Debating is one of the oldest traditions at the University of Utah, older even than football, dating back to the 1860s. For decades, the university’s John R. Park Debate Society has nurtured generations of young debaters as they squared off in contests of rhetorical skill and verbal jousting.

Now the society is providing a forensics venue for Salt Lake City’s massive refugee community as a way to support some of Utah’s most vulnerable populations and help them integrate into a new country.

PHOTO CREDIT: Brian Maffly, University of Utah

Anna Vinnystka, left, debates Sonia Kamanova, both teenagers from Ukraine, in the finals of the Refugee Debate League, hosted Dec. 8 by the University of Utah’s John R. Parks Debate Society. At the right is Erin Hardy, a U sophomore who served as a translator.

“Debate is a unique form of pedagogy in the way that it asks students to very much be participating in the process of learning. You can’t have a debate class that is just someone dumping information into students,” said Averie Vockel, the outreach manager for the U’s John R. Park Debate Society. “It’s a participatory form of education. And so we thought that might be a good idea for a population that maybe is frequently left out of education or may not have their voices heard.”

Vockel oversees the Refugee Debate League with Jeannie Hunt, the debate society’s director, and Meredith Jenkins, a student intern with the debate society.

This fall, eight middle and high school students completed the 11-week program that culminated with a multilingual tournament on Dec. 8 that was won by Ukrainian Anna Vinnystka, a ninth grader attending Herriman High next year.

According to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, Utah was home to 60,000 refugees in 2021, with the vast majority settling in Salt Lake County. Speaking 30 different languages, they come from dozens of countries, mostly Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Vietnam, former Soviet republics and Myanmar.

The idea for a refugee league was initiated by Michael Middleton, a communication professor who serves as associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Humanities.

Founded in 1869, the U debate society is among the the first established at a Western university. It is named for the university’s first president and is sponsored by the College of Humanities the Department of Communication.

With support from the state of Utah’s Refugee Services Office, the department started the refugee debate league last year, providing free instruction, college credit, scholarships and a chance to compete on the U campus. Including the 2023 fall semester, the program has provided debate training to 24 students.

PHOTO CREDIT: Brian Maffly, University of Utah

The eight participants in the 2023 Refugee Debate League enjoy a U campus tour.

“We thought we can help bring students the skills that you learn in debate that help with practical things that have to happen for you to access higher education,” Vockel said. “But then we can also serve as a bridge and a network for these students so that when they do get to the point of wanting to apply if they hit a roadblock or are not sure how to navigate something, we can provide that guidance for them as well.”

Available evidence shows participation in debate programs correlates strongly with good education outcomes.

According to the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues, high school debaters are 70% more likely to graduate, three times less likely to drop out, 70% more likely to reach ACT College Ready benchmarks in reading and score 25% higher on college-level literacy tests than their non-debating peers. And three-fourths of debate participants go on to attend four-year colleges.

For the refugee league, the fall semester focuses on K-12 students and the spring focuses on adults. This fall eight middle and high schoolers—seven from Ukraine and one from Afghanistan—participated, debating in four different languages. Classes are held one night a week, culminating in the tournament where the participants square off in head-to-head competition in front of judging panels consisting of university debate students, communication faculty and international students.

“We gave the students the opportunity to pick the topic they thought was most relevant to them,” Hunt explained. “Unanimously, these children, whose families came here to find safety, picked gun control.”

They had to be able to argue both sides of the question, zeroing on one of three subtopics, which were background and mental health checks; federal buyback programs; and third-party gun sales.

At the Dec. 8 tournament, Anna Vinnystka and Sonia Kamanova advanced through the day to meet in the final round in front of five judges. Vinnystka was assigned to argue in the affirmative, that is in support of firearm restrictions, while Kamanova argued against.

They cited suicide rates, the proliferation of gun ownership, criminal statistics and various data points to buttress their cases.

“We want to make the country safer and less violent,” Vinnystka argued in favor of background checks. “It is harmful to blame mental health.”

Through a university student intern, Erin Hardy, who served as an interpreter, Kamanova countered that such checks might not take into account a person’s need to protect themselves and could overburden the mental health system.

In the end, the five-judge panel awarded the prize to Vinnystka, but it was clear there were eight winners that day.