Agree to disagree: UOW students compete in world debating championships

Mary Pilkinton and Jeremiah Edagbami argue all students could benefit from debating skills

Learning how to argue is a skill that seems to have been lost in the 21st century, as healthy debate has given way to one-sided shouting and social media cancellation.

But for University of Wollongong (UOW) students Mary Pilkinton and Jeremiah Edagbami, the art of debating is one of the most valuable skills they have gained from their university experience.

Both are active and enthusiastic members of SWORDS (which stands for Students of Wollongong Organised Recreational Debating Society), Mary and Jeremiah said debating has expanded their minds, built their confidence and enabled them to think on their feet.

At the end of July duo took part in the World Universities Debating Championship, the largest and most prestigious debating competition in the world.

Representing UOW, Mary and Jeremiah made it to the Octofinals, placing them in the top 32 teams of the more than 370 teams that competed worldwide.

During the championships, which were hosted by the University of Belgrade but held online, Mary and Jeremiah debated in 11 rounds, each of which had its own unique topic. These included disaster response, international relations, economics, education, and family dynamics.

“In each round, we were assigned to be either the ‘government’, which means we support the topic, or the ‘opposition’, which means we were against,” Mary explained. “After the topic was released, we were given 15 minutes to prepare for the debate.”

The event was the culmination of a long debating career for both Mary and Jeremiah, which began in their first years of university. Mary graduated from UOW earlier this year, after finishing a Bachelor of Science (Honours), majoring in Human Geography, while Jeremiah is in his fifth year of a double degree Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Science.

“I joined debating because I was really nervous about giving unscripted speeches,” said Mary, who is advocate for Young Carers and has worked extensively in that space. “I wanted to feel more confident. But after I started, I realised I found the activity really enjoyable. I like the challenge of thinking of arguments on topics I might never have thought about before, and also being exposed to different ideas and issues.”

Jeremiah agrees and says that debating has forced him to consider his positions on topics that range from the incredibly urgent, such as social and geopolitical issues, to the incredibly ridiculous, including whether Donkey from the film Shrek could have overthrown Fiona and Shrek.

“Debating does a really good job at expanding my mind, forcing me to think about opposing positions, and taking said positions seriously. I am a more informed and rational global citizen for it.”

Professor Theo Farrell, UOW Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and Student Life), said finding a club or society that aligned with their interests was a fantastic way for students to truly make the most of university life.

“We want our students to get the most from their university experience, and so we encourage students to participate in our vibrant community of clubs and societies,” Professor Farrell said. “As Mary and Jeremiah show, extracurricular activities help students to develop essential news skills and often is where they make friends for life.”

The skills gained from debating, however, go beyond being able to argue with grace. Both Mary and Jeremiah believe it has made them better candidates for jobs and better at managing their own responses to often contentious questions.

To that end, they argue that every student could benefit from being involved in SWORDS, UOW’s debating society. It has helped them to deal with their own anxieties around public speaking, learn how to debate and communicate in a way that is ethical, fair, and constructive.

“Debating has helped hugely with my confidence and public speaking, but it’s also helped me to understand how arguments work and how to think through problems and solutions systematically. I’ve seen my debating skills be helpful any time I need to think on my feet, such as job interviews.It’s also helped me to think creatively and critically,” Mary said.

“SWORDS and debating have been a defining part of my university experience.”

For his part, Jeremiah said debating has gone hand-in-hand with his law and science disciplines, and the benefits will remain long after he graduates from UOW.

“As a science and law professional, when I’ve gone for interviews for my internships and professional practice, I am always asked about my debating experience,” he said. “Debating is a massive catapult upwards for not just your character, but for your professional development. It distinguishes you from the average job candidate.

“SWORDS is an excellent society on campus to begin your development.”