GW Debaters Join Gallaudet for Historic Match

The Washington, D.C., universities faced off in what is believed to be the first bilingual debate in American Sign Language and spoken English.

Wahlbeck/Gallaudet President
Clockwise from top left, GW student Anisha Sahni and Gallaudet student Romel Thurman co-moderated the debate with opening remarks from Gallaudet President Roberta Cordano and CCAS Dean Paul Wahlbeck.
April 26, 2021

Students from the George Washington University Debate & Literary Society joined the newly-formed Gallaudet University debate team on Wednesday evening for what organizers believe was the first ever bilingual intercollegiate debate held in both American Sign Language and spoken English.

In front of a panel of judges and a remote audience that included Columbian College Dean Paul Wahlbeck and Gallaudet President Roberta Cordano, the deaf and hearing students debated whether Washington, D.C., should be granted statehood. Their arguments and cross-examinations were relayed through interpreters.

Gallaudet, a federally chartered university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, launched its debate team—the first in the university’s 157-year history—in fall 2020.

“We applaud Gallaudet’s entry into this exciting arena, and we are honored to participate in its inaugural debate,” said Dr. Wahlbeck, noting “the importance of rigorous and robust debate, dialogue and deliberation” in cultivating students’ critical thinking and professional development skills.

“Debate is a dynamic means to achieving these ends, particularly for schools such as Gallaudet and George Washington University. Due to our location in the nation’s capital, we have unparalleled opportunities to engage in crucial national and international conversations, as well as collaborate with dynamic partners and stakeholders,” he said.

Gallaudet President Cordano said the event could serve as a model for broadening debate societies and showcasing the ability of students to present arguments in American Sign Language alongside debaters using spoken English.

“This is…about language equity, making sure that both languages are seen on par with one another, being able to use American Sign Language to be a part of an intellectual debate,” she said.

For GW, the event highlighted a continuing effort to refocus debate from an “academic sport,” according to GW Director of Debate Paul S. Hayes, to a tool for civic engagement. “The goal here is not just to support Gallaudet’s efforts to develop a GU debate team but also to play an active role in supporting Gallaudet’s efforts to develop itself into a tent pole for debate by deaf and hard-of-hearing middle school and high school students across the nation and even around the world,” he said.

The GW team included Shawky Darwish, a junior philosophy and political science major, and Rush Patel, a sophomore majoring in political science and international affairs. Anisha Sahni, a second-year student double majoring in political science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, served as co-moderator along with Gallaudet junior Romel Thurman.

“What made this truly incredible, beyond being a historic event for bilingual intercollegiate debate between American Sign Language and English speakers, was that our teams were able to connect despite the challenging circumstances of studying and debating online,” Ms. Sahni said. “To play a role in developing connections and friendships with the Gallaudet debate team members meant a lot to me.”

A coin toss determined that the GW debaters would argue in favor of D.C. statehood and Gallaudet students against it. GW’s Mr. Darwish maintained that “the residents of D.C. have an inalienable right to determine their own political destiny,” while Gallaudet co-captain Lexi Hill, a sophomore history and government major, supported the retrocession of the District into Maryland. “It is the best way to provide D.C. with congressional representation while increasing the voting power of Black Americans and advancing racial justice in the country,” she said.

Gallaudet was declared the winner by a panel of judges that included Phi Beta Kappa Society Secretary and CEO Fred Lawrence, a former dean of the George Washington University Law School.

GW’s debate society was created in 1822, shortly after the college’s founding. With over 100 GW students participating in speech and debate events each year, Mr. Hayes said the program stresses special advocacy and intercultural projects as complements to speech and debate training. “The traditional approach in university debate has been that you focus on competition and the education component follows,” he said. “But we’ve flipped the script. We focus on debate as a tool of engagement, service and scholarship. For us, the competition is a means to those ends.”

In 2016, Hayes founded and hosted at GW the Civic Debate Conference, an academic conference engaging debate educators from around the world on how best to reshape debate.  In recent years, GW debaters have participated in events sponsored by partners such as NASA, the United Nation’s Generational Equality Forum and the Embassies of France, Germany, Rwanda and South Africa.

When Mr. Hayes was contacted by Gallaudet’s debate coach earlier this year about a possible match, he jumped at the chance to expose his team to a new civic engagement opportunity. “This debate set a historic precedent, showing us that language is a barrier that we can overcome,” said Mr. Patel. “Being a part of history, being a part of something bigger than me, was truly eye-opening.”


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