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MTSU debaters challenge Afghan student team in video debate

Late-night preparations are commonplace for MTSU’s debate team, but a post-midnight competition with an Afghan student team via Skype is taking “international debate” to a new level.

MTSU debate team members Hailey Lawson, left, and Dale Sikkema prepare their notes before a Nov. 27 debate via Skype with university students from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, and listen to event coordinator Rachel Mills. Mills, an American citizen, is spending 10 months in Afghanistan to help university professors and students establish debate programs there. She also is an alumna of  Linfield College in Oregon, which conducted the first live debates with Afghan students via the Internet earlier this year. (MTSU photos courtesy of Dr. Patrick Richey)

Two teams of MTSU’s Blue Raider Debaters faced off against university students from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, beginning shortly after midnight Central time on Nov. 27, or 11 a.m. Nov. 27 Afghan time.

Students used webcams to communicate via Skype, the popular Internet calling application used internationally by government, business, military and educational institutions as well as the general public. The MTSU students took the opposing stance to the statement “The Internet Promotes Democracy,” while the Afghan students argued in favor of it.

“The students from Afghanistan are literally risking their lives to participate in a debate!” said Dr. Patrick Richey, team coach and director of forensics.

“I think it’s a life-changing experience for our debaters. This gives them a chance to put their skills to the test on a global level. Plus, they realize the sacrifice the Afghanistan team is willing to make to debate.”

MTSU students Hailey Lawson, Dale Sikkema, William Griffen and Tevin Mason made up the university’s two teams.

All were briefed on the cultural nuances to be observed during the debate as well as security concerns and practices, Richey said. Richey, a professor in MTSU’s Department of Speech and Theatre, also served as a civil affairs combat soldier in Iraq, and his academic research involves post-colonial rhetoric in the Middle East.

“This may be why they chose MTSU and me,” he said.

The unique opportunity arose following Richey’s communications with other members of the International Public Debate Association and debate colleagues.

Members of the Blue Raider Debaters gather for a photo before their early-morning competition via Skype with university students from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, on Nov. 27. From left are Marquwan Fultz, William Griffen, William Phillips, Tearinye Covson, Dale Sikkema and Tevin Mason; co-captain Hailey Lawson is seated in front.

A U.S. Department of State grant sent U.S. debaters and coaches to Afghanistan for live debates two years ago. After that initial success, additional grant money from the U.S. Agency for International Development allowed organizers to continue the project via Skype. Tuesday morning’s debate is the “test run” for this project, Richey said.

Working through various governmental and organizational channels, Afghanistan is establishing a vigorous debate program for university students. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems sponsored two debates this past spring via Skype between the IFES University Debate Club and students at Oregon’s Linfield College.

Mazar-i-Sharif is located in the northern province of Balkh and is Afghanistan’s fourth largest city. In addition to its reputation as a major tourist attraction because of its religious shrines and archaeological sites, Mazar-i-Sharif is home to five universities.

Dr. Patrick Richey

“There was a lag and some sound-quality issues, but the debaters overcame it pretty well,” Richey said. “The debate itself was good. Our Afghan counterparts … were very good debaters.

“I hope we can do more debates like this,” he continued. “We are also trying to get a SOROS grant to take the team to Thailand, but it’s in the review phase right now.

“A long-term goal of mine is to make the MTSU team a global team, but it is very, very expensive, so we are starting small.”

MTSU’s debate team, founded with the university in 1911, was revamped in 2011. It immediately began recruiting members and hosting special debate events on campus and participated in 11 tournaments in five states during the 2011-12 academic year.

In October, MTSU’s Blue Raider Debaters hosted their first tournament on campus in nearly a decade, welcoming teams from around the country in a “double debate-till-you-drop” competition.

You can learn more about the team at www.mtsu.edu/debate.

— Gina E. Fann (Gina.Fann@mtsu.edu

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