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How debating helps refugees find success in Utah

Debating is one of the oldest traditions at the University of Utah, older even than football, dating back to the 1860s. For decades, the university’s John R. Park Debate Society has nurtured generations of young debaters as they squared off in contests of rhetorical skill and verbal jousting.

Now the society is providing a forensics venue for Salt Lake City’s massive refugee community as a way to support some of Utah’s most vulnerable populations and help them integrate into a new country.

debate society members are talking in the Communication Institute

“Debate is a unique form of pedagogy in the way that it asks students to very much be participating in the process of learning. You can’t have a debate class that is just someone dumping information into students,” said Averie Vockel, the outreach manager for the U’s John R. Park Debate Society. “It’s a participatory form of education. And so we thought that might be a good idea for a population that maybe is frequently left out of education or may not have their voices heard.”

Vockel oversees the Refugee Debate League with Jeannie Hunt, the debate society’s director, and Meredith Jenkins, a student intern with the debate society.

This fall, eight middle and high school students completed the 11-week program that culminated with a multilingual tournament on Dec. 8 that was won by Ukrainian Anna Vinnystka, a ninth grader attending Herriman High next year.

According to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, Utah was home to 60,000 refugees in 2021, with the vast majority settling in Salt Lake County. Speaking 30 different languages, they come from dozens of countries, mostly Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Vietnam, former Soviet republics and Myanmar.

The idea for a refugee league was initiated by Michael Middleton, a communication professor who serves as associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Humanities.

Founded in 1869, the U debate society is among the the first established at a Western university. It is named for the university’s first president and is sponsored by the College of Humanities the Department of Communication.

debate society members stand in front of the Marriott Library

With support from the state of Utah’s Refugee Services Office, the department started the refugee debate league last year, providing free instruction, college credit, scholarships and a chance to compete on the U campus. Including the 2023 fall semester, the program has provided debate training to 24 students.

“We thought we can help bring students the skills that you learn in debate that help with practical things that have to happen for you to access higher education,” Vockel said. “But then we can also serve as a bridge and a network for these students so that when they do get to the point of wanting to apply if they hit a roadblock or are not sure how to navigate something, we can provide that guidance for them as well.”

Read more about the program in the @theU feature.

Last Updated: 12/19/23