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Debater and community leader Grace Kessler honored with McMullan Award
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Grace Kessler has a stellar record of academic excellence, a legacy of community-building leadership and immense potential for positive impact in the world. She also happens to be one of nation’s best collegiate debaters.

— Photo by Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video.

Madame President. That is what fellow debaters in Emory University’s renowned Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation and Dialogue call Emory College senior Grace Kessler.

Like any inside joke, the nickname carries elements of truth. A Robert W. Woodruff Debate Scholar, Kessler has been among the top three collegiate debate partnerships throughout her four-year Emory career. Her stack of trophies includes the Top Speaker award at the National Debate Tournament held this spring.

The title also captures Kessler’s leadership style, noteworthy for an emphasis on mutual respect and a commitment to raising up peers while working toward shared goals.

“I know I want to work with as many people as possible, no matter what I do,” says Kessler, who grew up in Topeka, Kansas, and will graduate with highest honors in political science in May. “If I’m on a team and contributing, I’m interested.”

Such humility, combined with Kessler’s intellectual and persuasive talents, makes Barkley Forum’s former Senior Director Ed Lee III wonder if her nickname isn’t a harbinger of 2044 (or beyond).

“The Barkley Forum is named after Alben W. Barkley, the nation’s 35th vice president and the highest-ranking elected official Emory has ever produced,” says Lee, the senior director of inclusivity for Emory College.

“I would not be surprised if, at some point, we are talking about Grace Kessler being the highest-ranking official Emory has produced,” he adds. “With her temperament and capacity to account for and communicate others’ needs, Grace will make significant contributions in whatever she will do or position she achieves.”

To recognize Kessler’s outstanding leadership and exceptional potential, she is this year’s winner of the Lucius Lamar McMullan Award.

Made possible by a generous gift from Emory alumnus William Matheson 47G, the McMullan Award singles out one Emory College graduate each year whom the Emory community expects extraordinary things from on a community, national and global scale.

The award also comes with $30,000 for Kessler to use any way she wants.

“If there is one person I’ve come across in my life that I had the capacity to invest in, and I would know is going to do great things in the future, it’s Grace,” says senior Shreyas Rajagopal, a fellow Woodruff Debate Scholar and Kessler’s best friend. “It’s not even close.”

‘A good team player’

Kessler’s impact at Barkley Forum was immediate. Noted for her prolific research and writing skills, she teamed up with alumna Eu Giampetruzzi for tournaments that had shifted online due to the pandemic. They won 88% of their debates, ranking third in the nation for the season.

The pair were the third-best team again in 2022 and rose to second place last year, before Giampetruzzi graduated. The achievements were notable not only for starting the run as first- and second-year students, respectively, but because of the rarity of an all-female team at that level.

“Emory really is the best place to be a woman and debater in college,” Kessler says. “There is an emphasis on empowering each other and not tolerating any disrespect. I came hoping for that and now feel that I’ve meaningfully contributed to keeping it such a welcoming community.”

Despite the travel and time commitment of debate — averaging about 20 hours each week, including research and study during summer break — Kessler also has been a standout academically.

She joined the Immigration Law Lab run by political science professor Jeffrey Staton at the end of her first year. Through that experience, she has worked on doctoral candidate Sara Heridia’s project to create composite profiles for different analyses, collecting detailed data on the life histories of more than 300 federal immigration judges.

Kessler continued to focus on immigration questions for her honors thesis, examining the consequences of policies that allow mass hearings for people charged with illegally entering the United States, with as many as 70 defendants in some proceedings.

Her research, which included observing U.S. District Court proceedings in Arizona and interviewing lawyers who work those cases, found ways that those hearings hinder effective legal representation and undermine the ability of the accused to be heard in court.

Staton notes that Kessler turned the thesis in more than six weeks early while maintaining a perfect GPA and juggling the end of debate season with her duties as editor of the Emory Political Review. She also participated “for fun” in a serious reading group on political theory that associate political science professor Judd Owen hosts with two postdoctoral fellows.

“I don’t know how she does it all, to be honest. It’s remarkable,” Staton says. “Grace is just a good team player. She’s a real joy to have around.”

Ambition through heart

Kessler’s activities and study, including a minor in history, are the result of careful curation of what will allow her to explore policy and law separately and in ways they interact.

For instance, she discovered she didn’t enjoy campaign work after volunteering virtually on Barbara Bollier’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in Kansas. She was more intrigued by helping with policy research for former state Rep. Zulma Lopez, whose Atlanta law firm Kessler later worked at as an intern.

Kessler then worked as a policy intern at Bracewell, an international law firm, and as an analyst intern for McKinsey & Company consulting, both in Washington, D.C.

“I guess I’m a very driven person,” Kessler says. “I don’t want life to come at me. I want to go after everything I can.”

But like a true presidential great, Kessler balances her passions with a sincere interest in other people and their experiences, Rajagopal says.

Despite their closeness, he was surprised when she wanted to team up with him for Barkley Forum this year. He had taken last year off to study for the MCAT, an unheard-of break in debate that made him an unlikely varsity teammate.

Their partnership was marked by the dogged research and practice expected, plus TikToks traded for laughs. They kept a running list of funny observations during the season, which ended this month with them capturing the Rex Copeland Award — the national title for the top debate team based on their season-long records.

“Her ability to do each and every thing with the utmost dedication and perfection is almost difficult to see in someone,” says Rajagopal, a chemistry and religion double major who is a 2024 Robert T. Jones Scholar.

“But when someone has that level of ambition and passion because of what they want to do for others, it’s truly admirable,” he adds.

Unsurprisingly, Kessler has already seen the first piece of her legacy. A fellow female debater from her home state recently interviewed and won a spot as an incoming Woodruff Debate Scholar.

Kessler will watch the season from the job waiting for her at McKinsey and Company, where she hopes to work with government and nonprofit clients. She will work there for two years before starting Harvard Law School, where she was accepted last year in the junior deferral program.

The McMullan award will go toward tuition there, though some may go toward a long-awaited trip to Portugal and Spain after Commencement. Debate took up too much time for her to study abroad in those countries — not that she is complaining.

“I think of myself as an Emory alum and Emory debate alum. I will always have such gratitude for it,” Kessler says. “This year has been a reminder of how incredible it is to be surrounded by such interesting people, working on something bigger than myself. It has been such a great part of my four years.”

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