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Emory debaters finish fall season among the nation’s best

Woodruff Debate Scholars Grace Kessler (left) and Eu Giampetruzzi gained notice during their first season as a debate team, accumulating enough points to battle for the national title in the National Debate Tournament next March.

Lots of people argue online. This fall, Emory Woodruff Debate Scholars Eu Giampetruzzi and Grace Kessler were winning trophies for it.

When intercollegiate policy debate shifted online, the pair logged into tournaments from Giampetruzzi’s apartment on Emory’s Clairmont Campus. At their first tournament, they were the top seed after preliminary rounds, losing in the octofinals. They went on to win 88% of their debates (with only seven losses) and accumulated enough points with each win to earn a chance to battle for the national title in the National Debate Tournament next March.

The accomplishment is notable not for only a young team – Giampetruzzi and Kessler are a sophomore and first-year, respectively – but because of the rarity of an all-female team to reach that level.

“They’ve done a masterful job in such a trying year,” says Ed Lee III, senior director of the Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation and Dialogue.

“That they are in a position to be only the second all-woman team to win the national tournament is a testament to camaraderie and utmost dedication to Emory’s tradition of success,” Lee adds.

Making a name for themselves

Debate has been a part of Emory’s culture since the Phi Gamma Literary Society formed to argue current events on the university’s original campus in Oxford more than 180 years ago. 

The broader debate community has remained predominantly male, even when competitive debate took hold at the college level in the late 1940s. Emory has the only all-women team to win the National Debate Tournament, when Aimi Hamraie 07C and Julie Hoehn 08C took the title in 2007.

“Emory Debate is an exceptional place to be for women, because it has a history of treating everyone equally and expecting excellence,” says Giampetruzzi, a psychology and economics double major from Coral Gables, Florida.

Barkley Forum is a close-knit group, and not just for those in competitive debate. The organization also works with Atlanta high school students through the Urban Debate League and leads on-campus dialogues with the Emory Conversation Project.

For those who choose competitive debate, a typical season ends in March. It ramps up again in May, when a new topic is announced, with a heavy focus on research and practice during the summer. The fall season begins in August.

The two-person teams can qualify for the national tournament three ways. The nation’s top 16 teams – where Giampetruzzi and Kessler rank – receive an at-large bid in the first round. In the second round, the best teams from eight district tournaments are invited, usually about 40 more teams.

A second round of at-large bids are offered last, taking up to eight final teams. In all, the best 72 of the nation’s 1,500 teams vie for the national title each spring, Lee says.

Each institution can have up to three teams compete. With three tournaments scheduled next spring before the national title, Emory currently has three teams on track for invitations in addition to Giampetruzzi and Kessler.

One team consists of sophomore Andrew Pak and Shreyas Rajagopal, a first-year Woodruff Debate Scholar. Two teams are all first-year students: Woodruff Debate Scholar Kareem Safieddine on the Atlanta campus with Shivan Moodley at Oxford; and Woodruff Debate Scholar Henry Mitchell with Adrian Gushin.

The 2021 national tournament will be the first in two years, since the 2020 event was canceled because of the ongoing pandemic. Still, Giampetruzzi has had a particularly good year, ranked in second place with partner Zahir Shaikh 20C before the season ended in March.

Giampetruzzi also was selected as the sole student representative on the committee that refined the 2020/21 season topic: Whether the U.S. should reduce its security alliance commitments to either Japan, Korea, NATO states and/or the Philippines.

“The scope and the breadth of what we are talking about, the intricacies of each treaty, is an astounding level of information,” Lee says.

Building a team – and a friendship

The most competitive teams must master all the information on both sides of the topic and for ever-changing commitments. Giampetruzzi and Kessler realized they were equally competitive and committed shortly after they met during Kessler’s campus visit last year.

They became close friends over the summer when, while also chatting on Slack and playing Mafia on Zoom with Barkley Forum members, they spent hours every day teaming up to conduct research and analysis.

They also debated as a team online, refining and updating their research even after classes began in August. Kessler, who stays on the Atlanta campus, travels to the Clairmont campus so they can be together for tournaments.

During each event, they marshalled the evidence to make their case regarding U.S. security commitments. They opened the season as the top seed in Northwestern University’s tournament and later placed second in the prestigious Harvard Round Robin.

They finished the season’s final tournament, hosted by Wake Forest University, with the second-highest combined record and speaker points in the eight preliminary rounds. Giampetruzzi was named top individual speaker for the event, and Kessler was fifth.

“We’ve established a name for ourselves and can be a top seed going into elimination rounds (at tournaments), which really exceeded all of my expectations,” says Kessler, a Topeka, Kansas, native who plans to major in political science. “Hopefully we show it shouldn’t be unusual for women to be at that level.”

And, they love teaming up for online meetings with female debaters in high school, including three nationally ranked debaters who watched the pair compete.

Those debaters – women from California, Illinois and Nevada – decided to apply to Emory in hopes of competing with Giampetruzzi and Kessler and with each other, says Allison Harper, Barkley Forum’s associate director of debate.

They [Giampetruzzi and Kessler] are role models. Younger debaters see them and see there is a path at Emory for them to be successful,” Harper says. “It may be that Emory will not have the only all-female National Debate Tournament championship team sooner rather than later, because of them.”

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