Female debate duo takes national title
The National Debate Tournament, begun more than sixty years ago at the United States Military Academy, is considered the “top gun” of debate—the stage where the best of the best compete. This spring, Emory students Aimi Hamraie 07C and Julie Hoehn 08C took first place at the tournament, the first all-female team ever to win the title.
After a rigorous national qualifying process involving more than 1,500 teams, the top seventy-two college teams in the country gathered in Dallas to debate explosive subjects at rapid-fire speed. The topics, which the teams studied and argued the entire year, included four recent Supreme Court decisions on abortion, school segregation, military tribunals, and violence against women. The tournament is structured around an elimination process in which the number of judges—and pressure—increases with each round.
Hamraie, who has debated since she was a high school freshman in Colleyville, Texas, said she and Hoehn struggled in the preliminary rounds, but gained confidence as the competition wore on.
“We tried not to think about it,” she says. “We had to be really focused on what we were doing. Earlier we definitely did not think we would win, but we worked our way up.”
In the final round, the team argued that the constitution should be amended to reverse a Supreme Court decision expanding abortion rights. Their position carried them to victory.
“It’s a huge accomplishment,” says Edward Lee, the team’s primary coach. “You just can’t overestimate how important this is for students who are debaters. It’s the one tournament of the year everyone aims for.”
Hamraie says winning the tournament was a “surreal experience.”
“I remember everything in slow motion,” she says. “Julie and I looked at each other, everyone around us was going crazy and jumping up and down. It was a little bit shocking, but I’ve gotten used to it.”
In general, Hamraie says, there still are more men debating at the national level, but women are becoming a formidable force. “There really has been a glass ceiling,” she says. “We played the boys’ game, and we were better at it. We hope this will encourage other women to participate in debate and give them hope that they can win, too.”
Hoehn, a junior majoring in political science, also is a veteran debater who competed all four years at Chattahoochee High School in Alpharetta. “It’s one of my favorite things to do outside school,” says Hoehn. “Debate exposes you to a whole bunch of different topics that you wouldn’t normally come across by hanging out with people my age.”
Hamraie, who graduated this spring with a degree in interdisciplinary studies and political science, is taking a year off to coach debate at Emory before attending graduate school, in either comparative literature or law. She says debate has been a pivotal part of her education.
“It’s probably affected everything I’ve tried to do in my life,” she says. “From the time I was fourteen, I’ve had to do an immense amount of academic research every year. It builds your work ethic so that you finish work faster, read quickly, process quickly. Even in things not related to debate, I use those skills.”
Emory has a rich history in debate, dating to the mid-1800s when “literary societies” would practice the forensic arts by arguing the hottest topics of the day—marriage, manners, morals, religion. More recently, Director of Forensics Melissa Maxcy Wade 72C 76G 96T 00T has led the Barkley Forum, the University’s debate program, to the forefront of the national scene. In addition to leading Emory’s top-ranked intercollegiate team, Maxcy Wade founded the Urban Debate League in 1985 for inner-city students, which has become a national education reform movement reaching some thirty thousand students in seventeen cities and more than three hundred schools.
“Debate is a quick, competitive way of giving kids incentive to build critical thinking and research skills,” says Maxcy Wade, who received the Thomas Jefferson Award at Commencement this year. “It’s a vehicle for a better education.”—P.P.P.