Aurash Vatan ’19 and Debate Team Coach Sarah Getchell boarded a 25-hour flight to Sydney, Australia, on April 4 for the 2017 High School World Individual Debate and Public Speaking Championship, where he placed 36th overall.
From that day until April 13, the championship debate hosted over a dozen countries from around the globe, with 138 contestants who were selected by placing first overall in debates from their respective countries. Aurash earned his ticket to Sydney by winning first out of a pool of around 100 debaters at the St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, on November 13.
The championship opened with a ceremony that welcomed all competitors before kicking off the three days of competition. On those competition days—which lasted from 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. with breaks for morning tea, lunch, and afternoon tea—students debated topics in four separate categories: interpretive reading, prepared speech, parliamentary debate, and impromptu speaking.
For interpretive reading, the competitors read a serious or humorous passage of prose or poetry, and for prepared speech, the students delivered their choice of either a persuasive speech or an after-dinner speech. Parliamentary debate allowed competitors 30 minutes to prepare talking points, and impromptu speaking allotted them only two.
All competitors performed in each category two times, with the top eight moving on to the category’s finals and the final four of those rounds advancing to the category’s grand finals, where the judges—debate coaches from participating schools—selected a single winner. To determine the overall rank of each student, the judges averaged the scores of each category.
For his prepared speech, Aurash chose to address European politics, cracking jokes about the new populist parties emerging around Europe and about the European Union in general. His favorite moment in the competition, however, came during his second round of interpretive reading when he delivered a passage from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a book he found “frankly depressing” and “incongruously hilarious.”
“I didn’t speak as clearly as I’d hoped in the first round, but in my second, people were reacting positively in the audience, so it ended up being my best round since I achieved the emotional connections with the audience that all debaters strive for,” he said.
That connection with the listeners is why he enjoys debating, Aurash said.
“I like public speaking because it makes you more articulate and lets you understand the ideas of other people that you may not necessarily agree with,” he added. “I especially like debating because every once in a while when you have a good idea, you manage to connect with the crowd.”
Ms. Getchell said that even though Aurash has only debated for one year, his skills are advanced.
“Considering his young age and lack of competition experience, I was very impressed by the level of his competition,” she said, noting that all of the competitors except for one freshman at the event were upperclassmen.
In the evenings, the competitors ate dinner out and partook in a variety of activities, such as a cruise in Sydney Harbor and a visit to the beach. After the first days of competition, the debaters each spent one day in the finals and another participating in the grand finals. Those who didn’t qualify visited the beach and attended the awards ceremony.
Aurash said that he liked spending time with other students during and outside of the competitions and that while he was initially worried that he would be too young to fit in, he found all of the kids and coaches welcoming.
“The American team had a great dynamic. We bonded throughout the trip, and they were all very fun and nice kids,” he said.
One of the highlights he recalled from the trip was when the team showed up underdressed to the opening ceremony.
“We had just come from the beach only to see everyone else in suits and dresses,” he said. “Frantically changing outside the auditorium in a shared adrenaline-induced panic was when I realized that we were going to be a great team.”
Coached by northeastern private school teachers, including Ms. Getchell, the United States team was comprised of 14 individual debaters hailing from schools like Phillips Exeter, Milton Academy, The Hotchkiss School, and Belmont Hill, among others.
Although students participating did represent their countries, the championship was an individual competition, so countries did not receive overall rankings.
“The U.S. team did incredibly well and was noted by other coaches to have had one of its strongest years in the competition,” Ms. Getchell said. “Of the whole trip, my favorite part was visiting some surf beaches, but on a more educational note, watching debaters excel at the highest level of high school competition.”
Although Aurash voiced disappointment at the judges’ decision not to qualify him in the finals for more categories, he said he remembers the trip fondly.
“The experience made up for any disappointment,” he explained. “I made many new friends and was able to debate at the highest level possible. What is better than that?”