Prompt: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
“Do you even know how price controls work?”
My male opponent towered over me, voice soaked in disdain. I spent an entire month researching everything about pharmaceutical price controls, but he looked at me like I’d never debated before. Did I have to look like him to appear as a worthy opponent?
In debate, like most places, women face rampant discrimination. If we speak softly, we’re “unconvincing.” If we sound assertive, we're “sassy.” A recent analysis of 125,000 Public Forum debate rounds found that female teams were 17.1% less likely to win against male opponents.
When I became the captain of my all-girl-school’s debate team junior year, I thought preparation would protect the younger girls from sexism. So, I spent hours outside of meetings drafting lesson plans, working with girls individually, and reviewing case arguments. I wanted these young debaters to leave each round with their heads held high, so everyone could see the strength and power they possessed.
But debate is a time-consuming activity, so as their schoolwork increased, the debaters started skipping meetings and leaving cases unfinished. I started worrying that if I didn't teach them everything I knew, they wouldn’t overcome the prejudiced judges and condescending opponents. Or worse, they would see their losses as a reflection of their value.
That February, I attended the Harvard National Forensics Tournament. I put in more hours of research than I ever had before, but round after round, judges stared blankly during my speeches and handed their ballots to my opponents. Strong arguments transformed into flimsy claims.
That night, I was devastated. With tears welling up in my eyes, I asked our team’s coach, Ilana, how I could improve. I always thought of debate as cut-throat, so I expected her to rattle off a string of critiques and walk away. But Ilana gave me two things no coach had ever given me before: strength and comfort. She said, “Anita, the knowledge that you learn from this tournament is priceless. That can’t be measured by a trophy. You are smart and capable, and as long as you keep on learning from each round and trying to improve, you’re successful.”
The whole plane ride home, Ilana’s words echoed in my head. If I tried my best during every tournament, why should others’ judgments take away from my sense of self-worth? Ilana’s words helped me realize that I was a powerful female debater because of my determination, not because of the rounds I won. Now I needed to pass her wisdom to others.
I completely reevaluated my job as team captain. My job isn’t just teaching debaters how to succeed, but also giving them the strength to overcome failure. Sure, teaching them how to write a block file could make sure they were prepared enough to evade one prejudiced judge. But teaching these young women that they are smart, strong, and important people would help them combat sexism for a lifetime.
So when some freshmen signed up for an online tournament a few months later, instead of pushing them to do last-minute research, I settled their nerves and urged them to take breaks and grab food. No matter whom the judge voted for, I celebrated their accomplishments after every round and made sure they knew how hardworking, strong, and capable they were.
Ever since February, I’ve judged 35 debate rounds and taught at 2 debate summer camps. After giving constructive feedback, I always end each round or lesson with, “You all should be so proud of yourselves for working so hard.” Not out of pity, but because it’s true.
This year as we start debate online, I know that I want to be more than just a leader. I want to be a guide and supporter. I hope that the next generation of young women won’t need reminders that they are absolutely fabulous, whether that’s in debate or beyond.