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Refugee Community Debate League

What is it?

The Refugee Community Debate League was established by the University of Utah Department of Communication and the John R. Park Debate Society in the fall of 2022 in an effort to expand departmental outreach into the community. Moreover, the program contributes to the department infrastructure by emphasizing community engagement informed by the anti-racist code of conduct. The program is an effort to connect and support a historically and presently marginalized group in Utah. Recognizing that Salt Lake City has a large refugee community, the department and the debate society created the Refugee Community Debate League as a way to engage in collaboration and meet the needs of our refugee neighbors. The debate league focuses on the basics of debate instruction and argumentation through weekly classes held during the fall and spring semesters. Our goal is to support members of the community through free instruction, free college credit, scholarships, and an opportunity for competition on the University of Utah campus. The Salt Lake Refugee Center helps facilitate the program though recruitment and providing an accessible location for weekly classes.  

What are we doing?

At the conclusion of the fall 2022 program for K-12 participants, eight students visited the University of Utah campus for a debate tournament. At the tournament, students were able to showcase the skills they acquired during the course and compete with one another in front of judging panels made up of John R. Park Debate Society members and department faculty. All students debated education reform in the state of Utah and proposals for how the state might alleviate some of the academic stressors put on students. Two partnerships advanced to a final round. The winners of that final round were the recipients of laptops and all members in the final round received $1,500 scholarships the University of Utah. All members were awarded course completion certificates and various university swag.

After a successful fall program, the debate league will pick up again this spring starting January 24th. The spring course will be targeted for those in the refugee community eighteen years of age and older while still maintaining the opportunity for University of Utah course credit. While still centered around the basics of argumentation and debate, instead of debating education reform in Utah, students will explore the topic of healthcare. We are also pleased to announce that department member, Dr. Crystal Lumpkins, has agreed to present to the course as a guest speaker on February 21st. Dr. Lumpkins’ perspectives and knowledge with regard to health communication will not only serve as a form of multifaceted involvement with the students, but one opportunity for the students to engage with research on their topic.

Why debate?

The debate society believes that debate instruction is a unique pedagogical practice in which students have the ability to explore their own beliefs and build confidence in themselves and the ability to present those beliefs. In fact, academic debating has demonstrated the ability to substantially improve the academic performance, college success, and career outcomes for its participants. Research from Christopher Medina at the University of the Cumberlands in 2020 explains that debate can provide opportunities for students to invest in their own development and political efficacy. Moreover, Gordon Mitchell’s research in argumentation and advocacy identifies debate as an educational practice that is in contrast to traditional restrictive pedagogical spaces; and when students are engaged in argumentation, that can provide the opportunity for them to develop stronger senses of self as powerful agents of social change. Data from the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues also shows that students who debate in high school:

  • Are 70% more likely to graduate than non-debating peers. 
  • Are 3 times less likely to drop out than their non-debating peers.  
  • Are 70% more likely to reach the ACT College Ready reading benchmark.  
  • Score 25% higher on college-level literacy tests. 
  • Are likely to attend a four-year college or university (75% of debating participants will attend a four-year institution of higher education). 

Debate education directly supports the goals of the Salt Lake Refugee Center as well, as they focus on expanding educational opportunities that can assist the community in the process of resettlement. They emphasize the importance of teaching skills that can lead to family-sustaining employment and programs that can help will English language skill training. Debate education enhances a variety of essential skills that can positively impact students’ self-esteem and critical thinking. The debate society is committed to expanding the impact of debate to students of all backgrounds and the Refugee Community Debate League is one way to do so.  

Last Updated: 2/13/23