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Debate team provides cultural and intellectual back-and-forth

Diana Luna/Daily Bruin

By Chris Campbell

Feb. 19, 2016 12:00 a.m.

The UCLA Speech and Debate team met yesterday with Chinese students from different universities for a lively back-and-forth about whether the United States should accept Syrian refugees. Both teams spent weeks going through facts and arguments to prepare for the debate, which was touted by the communication studies department as a prime opportunity for cultural exchange.


Campbell: A packed law school classroom looked on silently as the UCLA debate team sparred with visiting Chinese students Thursday afternoon. The two sides were locked in a back-and-forth over the issue of Syrian refugees. Should the United States accept them or not? It’s a complex political issue, but judging by the team’s responses, it’s clear they knew the nuances.

Campbell: Of course, all these facts and arguments don’t just appear overnight. Debate teams can spend weeks preparing for a match. UCLA’s team captain, third-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student Austin Kaidi usually leads the process.

Kaidi: Generally what we’ll do is we’ll get together, the whole team. We’ll shoot out ideas, try out arguments, just talk about the issues. And as we talk about it we’ll get to things that we don’t agree upon.

Campbell: And once they find disagreements, the real fun begins.

Kaidi: When we get into the main issues, that’s when we can get into the nitty-gritty of in-depth research, finding quotes, what experts think and so on.

Campbell: Each side is expected to give a speech, about seven minutes long, about why their position is the correct one. But here’s the catch: Participants are assigned positions on an issue and that’s what they have to argue for. It’s pretty fluid, as team member and third-year political science student Joe Kahn describes. Sometimes you’re for accepting Syrian refugees, and sometimes you’re against.

Kahn: We skirmish against each other in practice a lot, and we both debated for the other sides too. So the side that was opposing the topic today has argued in advocacy of it before, and vice versa.

Campbell: But this debate was special because UCLA hosted students from a Chinese debate team. The students from that team hailed from Beijing Foreign Studies University and Xiamen University. They’ve been touring Southern California.

Li: We went to Point Loma, and Irvine college in University of California, and this is UCLA. So we will go to Northridge in the afternoon and probably fly back to UC San Diego later.

Campbell: That was senior Beijing student Kathy Li. And like the UCLA team, these students don’t waffle around when it comes to debating.

Li: It takes months and years of training for sure. We know the motions beforehand, but like tournaments cover all sorts of things like politics, environments, cultural issues, that’s why we’re supposed to read all sorts of newspapers, academic papers, so as to be prepared for the motion’s updated topics.

Campbell: The event was set up by Gary Rybold, longtime debate coach for Irvine Valley College. He’s been friends with UCLA debate coach and communication studies professor Tom Miller for decades. Rybold says bringing the two sides together provided some outstanding opportunities for the Chinese students.

Rybold: They really haven’t had a history of debate, they’ve had a history of learning English. So usually when we talk about debate, we talk about it as the way to best develop English skills.

Campbell: But what about the students themselves? Did they glean anything from the experience?

Kahn: We exchanged gifts before the round, so we gave them UCLA shirts, and they actually gave me a piece of Chinese silk, one of those Chinese silk handkerchiefs, so it’s cool to see that cultural heritage.

And then also talking with them about, how does China view these issues? How does China view the Syrian refugee issue?

Campbell: Interestingly, professor Miller says the topic of the day, the Syrian refugee crisis, came from a desire for international perspective. After all, cultural sensitivity can be challenging while waging a war of words.

Miller: We wanted to be culturally sensitive to the Chinese team. And that’s why we came up with this Syrian refugee debate issue. We were originally going to debate the Chinese military actions in the South Sea, but wiser heads prevailed and they decided that’s probably not a great topic for both sides to be debating about.

Campbell: And so they settled on the Syrian refugee issue. The vigorous back-and-forth between debaters from two different continents facilitated cultural and intellectual exchange. Hopefully, it served both sides well. And hopefully the Chinese students enjoy those UCLA shirts.

For Daily Bruin Radio, this is Chris Campbell.

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Chris Campbell | Alumnus
Chris Campbell was the Daily Bruin Opinion editor in the 2015-2016 school year. He previously served as Radio Director and as a Radio contributor. He writes about everything, but focuses on Westwood and city issues.
Chris Campbell was the Daily Bruin Opinion editor in the 2015-2016 school year. He previously served as Radio Director and as a Radio contributor. He writes about everything, but focuses on Westwood and city issues.
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