WHS welcomes competitive debate team


Photo courtesy of Amisha Mehta

WHS Debate Team

WHS’ newest club wants to prove that Blue Devils can be fierce competitors in more than just sports. 

The WHS debate team was originally affiliated with the Westfield YMCA and was started five years ago by Westfield mom and Debate Head Coach Amisha Mehta and her daughter Mira Mehta. It is also led by Debate Coach Stefan Bauschard. Due to difficulties caused by COVID-19, the Westfield YMCA could no longer support the team, prompting Mehta to establish the organization as a WHS club. This change has temporarily prevented middle schoolers from becoming involved in the team despite it being open to both seventh and eighth graders prior to the pandemic.

The debate team has varying levels of commitment depending on what type of debater you want to be, winning tournaments takes more time and effort than simply participating. When seniors Kaily Zhao and Mira Mehta were preparing for national debates, they spent upwards of 30 hours per month researching and refining their arguments. However, if you are simply looking to improve your public speaking or research skills, it may be less time-intensive.

The debate team currently practices once a week over Zoom and competes in tournaments on some weekends. The team debates in the public forum style, which requires competitors to prepare research-based arguments for both sides of a topic. A new topic is published once a month by the National Speech and Debate Association. 

“Some previous topics we’ve done are topics like arms sales between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and price caps on prescription drugs,” said Mackenzie Wilson, a current WHS sophomore and member of the team. “One topic we had that was more out there was about Spain and Catalonia.” 

 According to Wilson, some topics can be difficult to argue on both sides, such as NSA surveillance of American citizens and topics that have to do with real-life policy. Though the topics published by the NSDA tend not to focus on current issues and politics and more so on hypotheticals, many of the arguments that competitors prepare include references to public policy and government administrations.

“Politics definitely plays a role, but it isn’t necessarily the focus of the specific topic,” said sophomore Matthew Chen, a member of the team.

The process of researching and preparing arguments can be grueling but it is a collaborative process with debaters competing in pairs and formulating arguments as a team. Aside from the team aspect of debate, Mehta said, “We tried to model it a lot after running. It’s about personal accomplishments.” 

Debate is also about creating your own definition of success.  

“For some kids getting up and giving a four-minute speech is a really big deal; that’s fine, there is a space for that person on the team. Some kids want to be nationally competitive and win tournaments and that’s fine too,” said Mehta.

As a whole, however, the team has a long list of accomplishments. Last season, Mira Mehta and Zhao were quarter-finalists in the Silver Division of the National Tournament of Champions, the first in the team’s history to achieve such high national standing. 

Despite limitations due to COVID-19, the team has also found success during the current season. “The last tournament we participated in was the Polar Bear Classic, where one of our [pairs] made it to the quarter-finals, and another, the semi-finals,” said Chen.

The Polar Bear Classic is a debate tournament that is held in Iowa, somewhere the WHS debate team would not have been able to travel to during a typical season. Though COVID-19 has affected how they practice and compete, it has made competitions more accessible and less time is spent commuting to the tournament location.

According to Wilson, local tournaments take place on Saturdays and typically have four rounds, lasting about eight to nine hours in total. The national tournaments are usually much longer, sometimes lasting from Friday afternoon all the way into Sunday.

“We’ve been relatively lucky with COVID-19 because it translates well to online tournaments and practices,” said senior Mira Mehta, a member of the team. 

Although the team is not accepting new members for the current season, Mehta is hoping to open the team to new members after the competition season wraps up in the spring. In addition, the team is hoping to bring in volunteers who would be willing to assist as judges and manage the middle school side of the team that is likely to make a return next season.

To get involved next season, contact the WHS debate team via email at [email protected] or visit their website.