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The Dartmouth
June 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Spotlight on Parliamentary Debate

Dartmouth’s Parliamentary Debate team made great strides in both competitive achievements and fostering inclusivity, resulting in placing as world semifinalists.


This article is featured in the 2024 Winter Carnival special issue. 

Before the pandemic, the Dartmouth Parliamentary Debate team had been a steady-going team with dedicated members. According to co-president Natalie Keim ’25, Parliamentary Debate suffered a decline in membership during the pandemic due to the switch to virtual communication. Despite these hurdles, they have been able to see significant progress upon their return to campus, reflected in their revival of membership and success in competitions.

“This is a team that completely fell apart during COVID,” Keim said. “Now, to be tied for fifth in the world — to be a world semifinalist is just … insane.” 

In the fall of 2022, members of the Class of 2023 restarted the team by “actively bolstering recruitment practices and returning to regular practice cadences,” Keim said. Membership has bounced back and grown by around 50%. 

Parliamentary debate is a competitive, extemporaneous debate style that emphasizes logical argumentation and persuasion. Two-person teams compete against each other based on a topic or resolution announced only 15 minutes before the beginning of the round. Dartmouth Parli competes on both the American Parliamentary Debate Association and the International British Parliamentary Circuit. 

Since 2022, Dartmouth’s Parliamentary Debate team has seen increased success. At the 2023-24 World University Debating Championships, which consisted of 300 universities from all over the world, the team tied for fifth place, according to the American Parliamentary Debate Association. Partners Ryan Lafferty ’26 and Madeliene Wu ’26 led Dartmouth to its standing as the most successful Ivy League team.

According to Keim, around 30% of the current team are international students, and about 60%  are students of color. 

“We were really intentional about wanting to make this team more diverse, not just in terms of race, but in terms of international students, and students who had and hadn’t debated before and students from all sorts of financial backgrounds,” Keim said. 

According to Lafferty, there is a “benefit” of having a team with varying skill levels.

“I think one of the benefits of having people that come in with a fresh mindset is that they have a different approach to the game, which I think is excellent because it means that you’re much more able to be intellectually honest in making arguments,” he said.

The team’s diversity increased after it altered the tryout method and evaluation. 

“We really changed the way we did tryouts from a qualitative evaluation to a quantitative rubric that people fill out,” Keim said 

The team ranked No. 1 in the 2023 North American Universities Debating Championship, with Lafferty and Wu as the two top speakers at the tournament. The American Parliamentary Debate Association ranked Lafferty and Wu as the fourth-best individual debate team and Lafferty as the fifth-best individual debater in the country, according to its website. The team also holds eighth place for best debate club in America, according to Keim, making Dartmouth the highest-ranked debate team without an official coach. 

Keim attributed the team’s success to having “more voices in the room.”

“I think we’re winning more because we have more voices in the room … I’m really proud to run a team where everyone can be involved, and everyone is included,” Keim said. 

Keim emphasized how there is success at every level of the debate team. Peyton Jackson ’27 qualified for the U.S. Nationals, and first-year teams “consistently rank in the top 10 when [they] go to tournaments.”  

“I’m a huge fan of the novices we have this year,” Lafferty said. “They’ve been a blast to work with.”

Parliamentary Debate also has a mentorship system, which consists of bigs and littles. Lafferty mentors the novices and introduces them to the world of collegiate debate.

Max Winzelberg ’27, a first-year on the team, spoke highly of Lafferty.

“He just cares so much about helping me and other freshmen on the team succeed … he just wants to learn and wants to help other people… [he] has really helped foster a dynamic of collaboration and a lot of cooperation.” Winzelberg said. “... He does far more for the team than is expected of him just because he’s such a generous person."

At practice, the team makes strides to continue their success by drilling specific skills, including public speaking, by doing activities to get comfortable being in front of a crowd, and preparing for a broad range of topics. 

“We debate about whether broccoli should rise up in revolution against humanity,” Lafferty said. “We debate Japanese militarization. We’ve debated interest rate policies at the [Federal Reserve].” 

These activities help debaters prepare for any case they need to face at tournaments, regardless of the topic. According to Winzelberg, he was once asked at a competition to debate whether he would “lead a turkey revolution.”

“At some point in your debate career, you will give a speech where you are like, ‘I have no idea what I’m saying,’ and that’s okay,” Lafferty said. “As long as you project and radiate confidence, odds are no one will tell.” 

Even with hours of preparation, debaters still feel the stress and pressures of a highly competitive environment. 

“Usually debate competitions stress me out because I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform well, and if I don’t perform well, [it] just builds up,” vice president Brian Chiang ’25 said.

Each member has a different way of dealing with performance anxiety. For Lafferty, walking laps around the building helps especially during the final rounds of a debate. During the World Debating Championship, several players “played cards for probably hours in total just on the side.” 

“[Tournaments] are a lot more engaging and entertaining because people are there because they like to do debate,” Lafferty said. “And so the team dynamics, and even just the vibe at tournaments, I think is substantially more collaborative ... as opposed to they’re there [in high school] because they think it’s going to get them into college or whatnot.”

This attitude of collaboration and community is ever present on the team, and students on the team are excited about how close their members have grown. According to Chiang, the Parliamentary Debate team has made him feel like he is  “part of a larger community” — a feeling that has enriched his Dartmouth experience. 

Winzelberg shared the same sentiment. 

“I really love it. I think it’s a cool community to be part of. I’m grateful to be on the team,” Winzelberg said. 

Outside of practice, the team has team dinners after practice on Sundays, and they regularly hang out in Greek spaces together, which are organized by social directors Samantha Bevins ’25 and Arturo Serrano Borrero ’24. 

“Our social directors this year have been exceptionally great at making people feel involved and keeping people engaged,” Lafferty said. 

Since the team is such a social space, members feel that they are able to have important conversations, Keim said. 

“[It’s] been really cool to have this group of people and [to] be able to create specific values and a safe space and work to build community,” Keim said.

Keim also discussed how she wants to get the team involved with events on campus, such as President Sian Beilock’s Dartmouth Dialogues initiative. 

“I’d really love to get involved with [Dartmouth Dialogues], whether it’s partnering to lead a workshop on how to respond to an idea you disagree with, or how to argue a stance that you don’t agree with … I think it would be really cool to take some of the skills that we practice for so many hours every week and also start to give back to the community in that way.” 

As the team continues to flourish, their diverse voices, collaborative spirit and supportive community foster an environment that prioritizes open dialogue and inclusivity.