Virtual debate with Rwanda students provides learning opportunity about 1994 genocide

Virtual learning for Vanderbilt debate students opened doors halfway around the world this spring, as a friendly virtual competition with the Rwanda National Debate Team brought deeper opportunities to learn about that nation’s genocide in 1994. 

Vanderbilt students Zacarias Negron and Ellie Hooey recently debated the Rwanda National Debate Team on the topic of whether all people should have a universal basic income. 

“It is such an incredible opportunity to be included in Rwanda’s global debate series and debate with participants across the globe,” said Hooey, who will graduate this spring. 

The debate, held over Zoom and co-sponsored by the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy, was part of an initiative called iDebate Rwanda. The nonprofit program based in Kigali, Rwanda, provides opportunities for students in East Africa and the U.S. to connect and become engaged learners and critical thinkers through debate.   

Part of iDebate’s mission is to show partners in the U.S. and around the world a “post genocide society.” In addition to the debate topic, the students from Rwanda bring a set of activities that discuss the atrocities of the Rwandan Civil War of the 1990s—in which members of the Hutu ethnic majority murdered as many as 800,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority—as well as strategies for avoiding similar conflicts around the world. 

Abandoned buildings in Rwanda following the nation's genocide in 1994
Abandoned buildings in Rwanda following the nation’s genocide in 1994.

John Koch, a senior lecturer in communications studies and director of debate at Vanderbilt, said the opportunity to bring Rwanda debaters into the classroom this semester enhanced students’ connection to challenging topics. 

It was a unique opportunity for Vanderbilt students to engage with their peers from Rwanda and encounter new perspectives, lived experiences and ways of thinking about debate and the topic of universal basic income,” Koch said.  

Negron, a freshman at Vanderbilt, said the experience debating his counterparts in Rwanda allowed him to dissect public policy issues outside of a typical classroom setting. 

“Debate between friends, and not rivals, is always a riveting opportunity for cross-cultural understanding and discourse on important issues of our time,” Negron said. One of Negron’s goals is to join the foreign service as a diplomat and engage in peacebuilding exercises like the ones highlighted in the iDebate Rwanda discussions. 

Fellow debater Hooey, who is studying communication studies and human and organizational development, also said debating students in Rwanda was a memorable experience.

“Debating internationally helps to widen our personal scope of understanding,” she said. “As a communication studies major, I have learned about the importance of actively learning about a broad range of perspectives. This debate is a great way to practice discussing key issues facing our society amiably.”  

The meeting with Rwanda students is a first for Vanderbilt debaters, although the team has met with competitors from Ireland and in the British Parliamentary and Civic Debate world formats, which includes students from countries like Colombia, England, France, Kenya and Thailand.

“Academic debate allows students to engage with their peers from around the country and the world on pressing issues of national and international importance. It gives students not only the opportunity to network with their peers, but also the chance to learn about different cultures, countries, experiences,” Koch said.  

Learn more

Some participants will gather in person at Vanderbilt on March 11 to view the film Debaters without Borders, which examines in part how debate has helped Rwanda heal from its difficult past. 

 The one-hour documentary, directed by Aaron Walker, follows Morehouse College Professor Ken Newby on his quest to help students in Cameroon improve their debating skills and prepare for the largest and most important debate competition in Africa. Students featured in the film are on a similar journey to those who debated Vanderbilt students this semester. 

The film screening will be at 6 p.m. on March 11 in Wilson 103. It is open to the Vanderbilt community. The Unity Project is a co-sponsor of the event.