Members of the Hamilton High Debate Club include, from left, Kevin Chen, teacher Dawn Berkshire, Jenny Dong, Marie Chen, Kiyan Naraghi, Emma Xi, Gowri Biju and Arnav Nigam. They are in the Sweet 16 round of a global debate competition. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

There was a time in this country when two people would debate the great issues of the day and through the strength of their arguments, sway minds. That is rare in today’s world filled with talking points and closed minds.

Not so for the Hamilton High School Debate Club.

It has reached the Sweet 16 of the International Public Policy Forum Global Debate Challenge. They will learn at the end of this month if they will advance to the quarterfinals, which would mean a trip to New York City to compete against the other seven winning teams.

There were 220 teams from 22 nations that started the tournament, including two teams from Hamilton. They each had to make arguments either for or against this statement: “NATO is an effective model for international cooperation.”

“Actually, I have,” Arnav Nigam, a junior on the team, replied when team members were asked if they’ve ever changed their mind during a debate.

“I originally came in with a very strong-minded thought that NATO is an extremely effective model. And then I read a variety of arguments and research ... I actually started to see the other side and see how strong of an argument there is for the opposition and how like NATO may be an ineffective model as well.”

Teams compete head-to-head in the tournament and are assigned a position. So, one round they must argue why NATO is effective. And the next round they may have to argue why it isn’t.

Tournament judges read the original essay from each school and selected 64 of the best arguments. Then they set up a tournament bracket.

Hamilton defeated Groton School from Massachusetts in the first round and Bergen County Academies in the second round.

The team is currently competing with Potomac Oak from Rockville, Maryland, to get a trip to New York City for the Elite Eight round. The winner will be announced on March 30.

The seven members of the team are comprised of four sophomores and three juniors. They are Arnav, Kiyan Naraghi, Emma Xi, Marie Chen, Jenny Dong, Kevin Chen and Gowri Biju.

Being able to switch positions and still make strong arguments is something they say they’ve trained for.

“I think this is something that we all definitely experienced before,” Emma said. “Knowing how to refute points, and argue our own is something that we’ve all experienced in different kind of clubs and activities. So being able to transfer that to kind of written debate in this kind of IPPF format was really good for us.”

It takes an open mind to argue a position that you may not personally believe in, they note.

“I think it’s just having an open mind and saying that, really every argument has two sides to it,” Marie said. “And we should be able to look at both sides and understand the perspectives of both sides and respond to the other side.”

If they survive this round and go to New York, the format changes. Instead of written debates, they will have to present their arguments orally. That prospect doesn’t worry this debate team.

“In debate, we just do oral debate, so we’re more used to the oral format,” Marie said.

Kevin said he prefers the written debate, because they have more time to consider their responses.

Gowri said he joined the debate team because he thought it would help him with public speaking.

“I originally joined debate as a way to get rid of my stage fright, and be more comfortable speaking around people,” he said. “But I think the club has done so much more for me. It’s exposed me to different modes of thinking and like-minded people who support my beliefs and also challenge me to become a better person.”

Teacher Dawn Berkshire says the young debaters have impressed her.

“I am so impressed at how well informed with current events and things that are going on, not just in the United States, but in the world,” she said.

“They argue, they research, they speak about it competently and it makes me I think every student should be in speech and debate to learn the skills, the competence to speak in front of others, the confidence to share their thoughts and ideas. And I just think they’re fantastic.”

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