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Clockwise from top left, the participants in Wednesday's debate: Gallaudet student Thalia Guettler, George Washington student Shawky Darwish, Gallaudet student Lexi Hill, George Washington student Rush Patel and interpreter Kyle Duarte

[Gallaudet Facebook Live/Screenshot by Elizabeth Redden]

Gallaudet University and George Washington University students squared off in what organizers believe was the first bilingual intercollegiate debate in which one team used American Sign Language and the other spoken English.

Gallaudet, a federally chartered university for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C., formed its inaugural debate team this academic year. On Wednesday its debate team took on the timely question of whether Washington, D.C., should be granted statehood, with Gallaudet students arguing the negative and students from another D.C.-based university, George Washington, arguing the affirmative.

Students on the respective teams presented opening arguments, cross-examined each other and finished with closing arguments, all relayed through interpreters, before a panel of judges charged with evaluating them on the quality of their logic, research and analysis. At the end of the night, Gallaudet was declared the winner.

“I always wanted to be part of a debate team growing up,” said Lexi Hill, a sophomore at Gallaudet and co-captain of the team, who participated in Wednesday's debate. “It was too much of a hassle in the past because I had to use interpreters, and I just didn't do it. I loved debating at home; there's a lot of critical thinking involved.”

Hill, who wants to be a lawyer, is also a student athlete.

"I’ve always wanted to join something that is cerebral, and I enjoy being on a team, be it a sports team or a debate team. This was the perfect opportunity to meet people and enjoy the intellectual stimulation and be a part of this activity,” she said.

Romel Thurman, the other co-captain and a junior at Gallaudet, said he wanted to join a debate team when he was younger after seeing The Great Debaters, a 2007 film about a college debate team at a historically Black institution.

“I was always inspired by that and really wished I'd had a debate team to be involved with, but growing up deaf and in a deaf environment, I didn't see a debate team until I got to Gallaudet,” Thurman said. “Growing up, like Lexi, I was also a student athlete, and I also loved the camaraderie of the team. We are really all in together. This debate team has a great feel to it.”

Gallaudet president Roberta Cordano, who is deaf, said in remarks prior to the start of the debate that she was "looking forward to seeing how we can model what deaf people can do, and this art and this skill that we have in being able to present our thoughts through the use of American Sign Language."

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

The Gallaudet debate team was formed under the auspices of the university's Center for Democracy in Deaf America, which launched last fall. Brendan Stern, executive director of the center and assistant professor of American politics, said the center is “intended to foster healthy democratic skills and habits in deaf communities by fostering disagreement and civic engagement in American Sign Language.”

Stern, the head coach of the debate team, said Gallaudet formed the team for several reasons.

“First, competitive debate has been called by President Obama's Secretary of Education as ‘one of the great equalizers’ for minority achievement and educational opportunity,” Stern said via email. “It fosters tolerance for differences, cultivates critical thinking by making participants consider multiple perspectives, and polishes public speaking skills.”

"Second, debate is fundamental to the mission of Gallaudet," Stern said. "It fosters intellectual and professional advancement by empowering our students to grapple with challenging ideas bilingually and practice the timeless art of rhetoric."

Stern said during the debate that he and the team's assistant coach reached out earlier this year to various tournaments and debate coaches looking for competition opportunities for Gallaudet's new team and did not hear back from most of them. He thanked his GW counterpart, Paul Hayes, for embarking on a partnership.

"The pleasure of this debate and our growing partnership is entirely ours," replied Hayes, the GW debate coach. "This has been a phenomenal experience for me and my students. We've learned so much working with your group."

Thurman, the Gallaudet debate team co-captain who served as moderator for the debate, said it was “an unprecedented experience to have a deaf and hearing team from deaf and hearing colleges meet in this way … It’s an exciting moment for us. I'm really looking forward to see what comes of it in the future.”

“It's not only exciting for us,” said Hill, the other co-captain. “It’s also exciting for future generations of deaf debaters and the community in general.”

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