Meet the debaters: Vanderbilt students share how debate has shaped their college experience

Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of stories highlighting students who embody Vanderbilt’s commitment to free speech and open dialogue. Today, two members of Vanderbilt Debate share how their participation on the team has contributed to a meaningful undergraduate experience.

In Their Own Words: Life as a Vanderbilt Debater

Maya Reddy

Maya Reddy

How I found debate: I had always known I wanted to try debate, but as a child and teen, I had no opportunity to do so through school. I really looked up to my father, who did debate, and wanted to be just like him. He taught me the importance of understanding both sides enough to argue for either and how to best conduct myself when having controversial conversations. When I came to Vanderbilt, I gave up my high school sports and found myself with a lot of time on my hands, especially during COVID. I knew I wanted to join the debate team, and it just so happened that M.L. Sandoz, one of our coaches, was my VUceptor faculty adviser. The first thing I said when I entered the first meeting was, “I want to join the debate team.” And I remember her saying, “Oh! I am the coach!” It was serendipity. The rest is history!

How debate creates a sense of belonging on campus: The debate team is like a home away from home. I have had some of the most meaningful relationships blossom from the debate team, as we certainly go through a lot together. The debate team was especially impactful during my sophomore year, when things finally started to open up after COVID. I found myself with only a few friends and without much of a community. As soon as we started having regular meetings and going to tournaments, that changed drastically. I would even go so far as to say that debate has been the most important and meaningful organization I have been part of.

What I’ve learned: One of the most memorable debate moments for me is when I was asked to argue on the opposing side of a motion I really felt passionately about. Going through the motions of arguing for what I felt was the “wrong” side gave me an understanding of why people have that opinion, and even helped me develop a more nuanced perspective on the issue. It is for that reason that I enjoy debating the opposite of what I believe—it helps me to more fully understand not only the people around me, but my own opinions too. I think debate should be a required course because of this; we could do with more people seeking to understand their opinions at a deeper level!

Favorite moments: This summer I was lucky enough to travel to Paris, France, with two of my best friends. Though we competed in an unfamiliar format and unfortunately did not finish as finalists, we were proud of the prep work we did, as it required great amounts of research and writing. The debate trips are fun because we get to do what we love with our friends, and we get to explore new places. While in Paris, we were able to go on a tour with the French military college, which was so unique, go to many museums and cafes, and even to the opera, where we saw Romeo and Juliet.

What I’m looking forward to this year: I am so excited for this year. As part of our leadership team, I hope to help our debate team become stronger than ever! We host regular practices and debate rounds, travel to many tournaments and, of course, have social events! This winter our team is traveling to Vietnam, which will surely be an amazing trip, packed with great activities and fun times with good friends. All in all, I hope to give back to the debate team what it has given to me.

Ainsley Gill

How I found debate: Having debated throughout high school, I knew it was something I wanted to continue at Vanderbilt. However, as much as I enjoy the excitement and challenge of a debate round, it was the people and sense of community that led me to join the team.

How debate creates a sense of belonging on campus: Thanks to debate, I’ve not only been able to continue competing, learning and improving in an activity I love, but I’ve been able to do it at the highest level, competing across the country and around the world. These opportunities have allowed me to interact with debaters from other universities and countries, learning from their unique perspectives and life experiences. Overall, debate has made me a better public speaker and writer, but also someone who is better able to understand diverse perspectives, engage with complex topics, and value respect and empathy in any dialogue. I’ve been able to pass those same skills on through the debate team’s partnership with local elementary schools, giving young Nashville students the same opportunity to learn that their voice and ideas matter and that they should always have the courage to speak up for what they believe in.

Ainsley Gill

What I’ve learned: This summer, I was lucky enough to travel to Paris, France, to be a part of the Transatlantic Dialogues. We developed, presented and defended a policy proposal on transatlantic engagement with Russia. Our team’s proposal centered on setting new cybersecurity standards to strengthen NATO’s energy grid. At the event, we presented our proposal to the other schools’ teams as well as members of the French War College and responded to their questions. I’ll never forget getting to have these dialogues at the historic Ecole de Guerre in the heart of Paris.

What I’m looking forward to this year: I’m looking forward to welcoming our next class of debaters and starting the season off strong with a few online tournaments in the fall. I’m especially excited to travel to Vietnam at the end of December to compete at the World Universities Debating Championships.