For a small group of La Cañada High School students, there is perhaps no better way to spend a Saturday than analyzing whether a government’s obligation to provide sanctuary to international refugees outweighs its right to control its own borders.
Of course, doing so on an all-expenses paid trip to New York City as part of a global debate competition in which they’ve already beaten 200 competing high schools for a $10,000 purse only sweetens the deal.
On May 6, Spartan Speech and Debate teammates Alex Zhao, William Choi, Abi Lidar and Sonia Vaze will represent La Cañada Flintridge in the 16th annual International Public Policy Forum, sponsored by the Brewer Foundation and New York University.
This year marks the fourth time LCHS has entered the competition, but only the first time the school has made it into the “Elite 8” round of competition, where essay arguments on the year’s topic are foregone for oral, in-person policy debates, according to teacher and team adviser Susan Moore.
“Public policy debate is probably the most rigorous form of debate that we do,” says Moore. “Lawyers and educators will be judging the speakers. They’re going to be listening for the best argument, which is why we hope to win.”
Making it to the finals was no small feat. The LCHS team placed above 210 other competing schools in a series of essay-based rounds of argumentation in which their cases and rebuttals were scored by judges.
In November’s Top 64 contest, the local team beat out a Minnesota rival. In the Top 32 competition, they knocked a Pennsylvania team out of the running to qualify for the IPPF’s “Sweet 16.” LCHS most recently pulled out a win over a Texas team to earn their coveted spot in the “Elite 8.”
Team captain and LCHS senior Zhao, who’s participated in the competition all four years, said for he and fellow senior Choi know the stakes are high.
“For William and me this is the last debate of our high school careers,” Zhao says. “(So) I’m grateful to have qualified but still want to win.”
But while the competitors are naturally driven by a desire to win (and the prize, which they’d split four ways), they all agree speech and debate has already added so much to their lives.
“I had a lot of speech impediments when I was younger,” says Choi, a native Korean speaker. “I have learned to present myself and become a leader. [Speech and debate] has really helped me grow as a speaker and a presenter — it’s something I wish everybody could do.”
Lidar, a junior, says she finds herself using principles she’s learned in other classes, like science, and among friends.
“Even if it’s a conversation with people, I’ll feel my speech and debate brain kick in,” she laughs.
Vaze tells her friends, many of whom are intimidated at the mere thought of public speaking, to consider taking the class or joining the regular speech and debate team.
“Sometimes they’ll have mini-debates among themselves and I’ll say, ‘You should join the team,’” says the sophomore team member. “They’ll say, ‘No, I hate public speaking,’ and I’ll say, ‘That’s exactly why you should join.’”