Hannah Matsunaga ’16 and Madeleine Cavanagh ’18 had their share of anxious moments at this year’s World Universities Debating Championship. But their grasp of topics ranging from feminism to global economics propelled the Vassar Debate Society to one of its best showings in years.
The Vassar team finished in the top quarter of the field among the more than 400 colleges and universities from 92 countries that competed in the annual event, held Dec. 27, 2015, to Jan. 4, 2016, in Thessaloniki, Greece. A team from Harvard won the competition, defeating the University of Toronto in the finals.
Matsunaga, a political science major from Honolulu, HI, and president of the Debate Society, says preparation for the competition is always a challenge because topics for each round are revealed just 15 minutes before the arguments begin. But honing your debating skills and staying up to date on a range of global issues can help you out of a jam, she notes. That’s what happened when competitors were informed the topic of their next debate would be, “All states should collectively aggregate and evenly distribute all revenue from mineral wealth globally on a per capita basis.”
“When that topic was announced, there was a collective gasp in the room from all of us,” Matsunaga says. But she and Cavanagh took a few deep breaths, drew on some of the knowledge they’d gathered on global warming and other environmental issues that touched on mining, and wound up scoring well in that round of the competition.
Two other members of the Debate Society, Max Moran ’16 and Seth Molwitz ’18, took part in the event as judges, but they were barred from helping their teammates prepare for the individual debates. Moran, an economics and political science double major from New York City, says he had an idea how he would have attacked the mineral wealth question because of what he had learned in his economics courses.
But he readily conceded he would have been no help at all on some of the other topics Matsunaga and Cavanagh were given. The Vassar team racked up some points on the topic, “The creation of feminist icons and their cults of personality are good for the feminist movement.” Matsunaga says she and Cavanagh “pumped our fists” when that topic was announced.
Cavanagh, an English major from Toronto, was Matsunaga’s partner in several intercollegiate competitions during the fall semester. She says the duo functioned well as a team. “We share a Google doc where we post information on various subjects, and at Vassar you learn to consider the global aspects of things you’re studying,” she says. “We were proud to be enhancing Vassar’s image on a world stage, and it was fun seeing some of the people from other American colleges we had debated in the fall.”
Molwitz, a political science major from Monroe, CT, says he and Cavanagh gained some grounding in international competition when they represented Vassar at an event at the University of Toronto last fall. “It was the first time either of us had debated outside the country, and the topics were a lot less U.S.-centric,” he says.
Matsunaga says she had no plans to join the Debate Society when she enrolled at Vassar but would miss the competition and the camaraderie when she graduates in May. “I thought college debating would be fiercely competitive, but it hasn’t been,” she says. “I love winning, but what I’ll miss the most is the team. We all share the same kind of ridiculousness here at Vassar. And after you go through the exercise of organizing your thoughts on a topic for 15 minutes and then having to defend it, outlining a thesis for a paper for a class is a piece of cake.”
Matsunaga says she’ll take what she learned from debating beyond the classroom and the campus. “It teaches you to appreciate that there are rational arguments on the other side of most topics,” she says. “Most of us on the team – most of us at Vassar – are politically liberal, but having to defend the conservative position makes you realize there are some valid arguments on the other side.
“That helps you develop stronger arguments on your own side and to engage in a political argument without anger,” Matsunaga says. “It helps you become a better global citizen.”