Emory Report
May 29, 2007
Volume 59, Number 31

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May 29, 2007
Barkley Forum’s Wade recognized for spirit of service at Emory

by kim urquhart

Melissa Maxcy Wade has coached Emory’s Barkley Forum to more than 30 intercollegiate debate titles and has introduced thousands of students — many of them at-risk youth — to the power of words. In recognition of her significant service to the University through personal activities, influence and leadership, President Jim Wagner presented Wade with the Thomas Jefferson Award at Commencement.

“It’s an incredible honor,” said Wade, who reflects Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to civic enlightenment and engagement in the Emory community and beyond. “The fact that this award is an accolade from my peers is a very important part of it for me.”

For 35 years, Wade has led Emory and the nation in forensics. Already a national debate and speech champion before completing high school, she continued that legacy at Emory College, where she graduated in 1972 as one of the nation’s top intercollegiate debaters. Wade went on to earn three graduate degrees from Emory: a master’s in educational studies in 1976, a master of theological studies in 1996 and a master of theology in 2000 from Candler School of Theology.

As director of forensics and a faculty member of the Division of Educational Studies, Wade has published extensively on debate issues, strategies and pedagogy. She has coached the Barkley Forum to many national debate championships, including this year the first national championship ever won by an all-female duo.

In addition to winning every national coaching award in her field, she has been recognized for her service, scholarship and leadership, and has earned a seat on the National Associated Presidential Debate Evaluation Panel for every U.S. presidential election since 1976 — one of only three university debate coaches to receive such an invitation.

Recognizing educational inequality in socioeconomically challenged secondary schools, Wade founded the Urban Debate League in Atlanta in 1985. Partnering Emory Barkley Forum students with Atlanta public school students, the UDL aims to nurture critical thinking, research and communication skills among at-risk students. Since its founding, UDL has become a national phenomenon, reaching more than 20 major urban areas, coaching some 40,000 students, and partnering with scores of colleges and universities who offer scholarships to UDL high school participants.

“Debate is a quick, competitive way of giving kids incentive to build critical thinking and research skills. It’s a vehicle for a better education,” said Wade, whose research shows that after one year in an urban debate program, student reading scores improve by 25 percent and disciplinary actions decrease by 50 percent. Wade is currently focused on collecting long-term assessment data on urban debate in an effort to secure federal funding.

Wade acts as the national adviser to the Open Society Institute, a principal funder of the urban debate network, and has been the lead investigator for more than $3 million in grants to support UDL projects. One of these is the Emory National Debate Institute, which Wade directs each summer. More than 300 middle and high school students and teachers journey to Emory for debate training.

To support and expand programs such as the UDL, Wade works with the National Debate Project, a consortium of Atlanta-area universities that have partnered to promote debate as a tool for empowering youth living in socio-economically challenged communities. Wade serves as co-executive director of the NDP, which she hopes will serve as an incubator of urban debate innovation and programming for secondary school students and teachers that can be replicated nationwide.

Wade also leads a host of other community outreach activities through the Barkley Forum. Her program targeting secondary students in Atlanta Housing Authority communities, the Computer Assisted Debate Project, was selected as the nation’s signature education program for the White House initiative Helping America’s Youth.

Continuing to build exchange programs between debate students in South Korea and the U.S. is Wade’s latest endeavor. “A lot of that work is informed by creating more opportunities for speaking English, and debate adds a critical thinking dimension to that task,” she said.

What inspires Wade’s spirit of service? “There is a very large tradition of service in my family,” she explained. “There’s always been an understanding that when you’re on the path where your gifts intersect the needs of the world, the allies and resources that you need appear.”