Yalies selected as U.S. team for Chinese debate

For Light Fellows Adam Scharfman ’08, J.T. Kennedy ’09 and Austin Woerner ’08, visiting China is nothing new. But when they travel to Beijing next month, they will be going as debaters, not as language students.

Yale’s three-member team will represent the United States in a debate competition jointly hosted by New Media Singapore and China Central Television. The students learned last week that they had beaten out teams at Columbia, Princeton and Harvard universities to claim a ticket to the final round, where they will face other teams from universities around the world. The Yale debate took place in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall on Oct. 2.

Members of the Yale Debate team face off against a team from China in an Oct. 2 debate. Based on a tape of this debate, three university judges selected the Yale team to represent the United States in a Chinese-language debate in Beijing next month.
Andrew Liotta
Members of the Yale Debate team face off against a team from China in an Oct. 2 debate. Based on a tape of this debate, three university judges selected the Yale team to represent the United States in a Chinese-language debate in Beijing next month.

“The judges said that on language quality, no one can compare with us,” East Asian Studies professor Wei Su, the team’s coach, said.

Three judges, instructors at American universities, watched tapes of this fall’s debates between students from Tsinghua University in Beijing and teams at the four U.S. universities. They selected the winning team based on students’ language ability and quality of expression in Chinese, Su said.

The winning teams from Europe, Korea and Australia – along with the Tsinghua students and the Yalies – will face off in Beijing from Nov. 19 to Nov. 30.

The competition’s sponsors will pay for the team’s airfare, lodging and food, Su said. The team is also hoping to bring alternate Nick Sedlet ’08, although funding for his travel is still up in the air, he said. Team members said they have not yet received information from the sponsors about the structure of the final competition or the topic they will be debating.

Scharfman attributed the team’s success to a combination of the students’ participation in the Light Fellowship program, the strength of Yale’s Chinese Department and the emphasis University President Richard Levin places on Yale’s relationship with China.

“Yale has received many compliments from the programs [in China] that the Light Fellowship sends students to,” Scharfman said. “They’ve commented on the improvement in the quality of the students we’ve sent to them over the past few years.”

The Light Fellowship will spend $1 million sending approximately 100 Yalies to Asia this year, Light Fellowship Director Kelly McLaughlin said. Students can chose from over 20 approved programs in China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

In addition to the quality of Yale’s Chinese instruction, Woerner said, a major factor in the team’s success is the close-knit community of Chinese language students and professors.

“One major reason we all got so invested in this project was because we all have fun speaking Chinese together, we liked hanging out with Professor Su and coming up with ideas for the debate,” Woerner said.

When Yale and Tsinghua students competed in New Haven on Oct. 2, they were judged on more than just their debating skills. Before the actual debate – in which participants discussed whether success is the true goal of education – members of the Yale team performed a Chinese stand-up comedy routine, recited an ancient Chinese poem and played a song on the qin, one of the oldest Chinese stringed instruments.

McLaughlin said he heard that some audience members reacted ecstatically to Yale’s performance at the competition. One spectator reported that Sharfman’s poetry recitation wowed three female Yalies: The first girl stared, mouth agape, in wonder, while the second girl said in amazement, “Wow, he speaks Chinese better than my parents do,” McLaughlin said.

The last girl exclaimed, “I want to marry him!” McLaughlin said.

Though Beijing will be familiar ground for the debate team, Scharfman said, he is looking forward to reconnecting with his friends and teachers there.

“I know the city very well, so it’s not like there are specific places I need to go see for the first time,” Scharfman said. “I’m going to be going back to a very familiar place and feeling very good about being there.”

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