Armed with a $19,000 U.S. Department of State grant, members of the Monmouth University debate team spent winter break in India training teachers and students in policy debate. Joseph Patten, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and faculty advisor to the debate team, along with Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Rekha Datta, Ph.D., and eight undergraduate students traveled to the city of Mumbai from Jan. 3 to Jan. 16 as part of a two-year grant for a project entitled “Debate Clubs to Foster Leadership Skills in Underprivileged Youth.”
In the initial grant application, Patten and Datta stated that the Monmouth University training program “seeks to inspire active citizenship and empower underprivileged students with the skills necessary to engage the political system.” The project aims to form debate teams in partnership with three schools and/or social organizations in Mumbai and fosters debate skills throughout the year in preparation for a public debate competition at the office of the U.S. Consulate General in Mumbai in January 2021.
During the trip, Monmouth students engaged with 75 students from Mumbai about the art of debating topics such as gender inequality, something Patten noted is an issue present everywhere, but has been an increasing struggle for women in India. “Gender issues are universal,” Patten said, adding the history of unreported rapes, burning ceremonies and other disparities among women in the region.
“I was really impressed [with the students]. They dove right into the culture in terms of the food, all the social customs,” Patten said. “We really worked hard.”
Esther Wellman, a senior political science student, said: “My favorite parts of the trip were meeting many of the students from the two different NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and the school. All the students were very excited to learn about policy debate and interact with us. One of the students, Sakshi, from the second school, was so impressive with how quickly she picked up the debate skills and how passionate she was about the issue of gender inequality. After working with her and the other students for only three days, I had already created a new friendship and have continued to keep in touch even after we had left. I’m so grateful for the opportunity and thankful for Dr. Patten and Dr. Datta for making it possible.”
Debate as a discipline has historically been reserved for the elite, according to Patten. During the application process, Patten and Datta submitted a case study examining the participation of at-risk high school students they worked with in a debate mentoring program in Asbury Park High School. The research found students who participated in the debate mentoring program from 2011 to 2018 had higher graduation rates, higher grade point average growth from ninth grade to 12th grade, and performed higher on SAT scores, reading, writing and mathematics, compared to non-debating high school graduates. The study also cited that 100% of students that participated in the debate mentoring program graduated in four years and had a .81 grade point average growth.
“There’s something about performing. There’s something about competing that makes everyone raise their game. There’s also something about people working together. You have this shared experience of trying to do something hard together. And endeavoring to do something that’s difficult, and not always winning and taking pride,” Patten stated.
Patten also discussed the team and confidence building that comes with practicing debate. It’s a discipline he says that isn’t often mastered or won right away, where debaters learn to build a resilience to come back and build a skill. Patten explained he and Datta may conduct their own research specifically about their experience in India when they return in January 2021.
Monmouth University debaters Yendeli Bello, Julia Bialy, Madeline Doe, Jon P. Suttile, Alexis Vasquez, Chyna Walker, and Wellman played a leading role in the debate training program, according to Patten.
“India was such an amazing experience and I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to go and travel with such an amazing group of people,” Suttile, a senior political science major, said. “Having the opportunity to dive headfirst into a new culture was truly an eye-opening experience. Everyone we interacted with was so nice and treated us with amazing hospitality. The students we worked with were dynamos. They were very intelligent and extremely engaged with the material. I can’t emphasize enough how positive this trip was. The political science department at Monmouth is a one of a kind and I am very thankful for Dr. Patten and Dr. Datta for providing me with this opportunity.”
The U.S. Department of State grant was secured by Datta and Patten with assistance from Anthony Lazroe, director of grants and contracts.