Earlham students leave mark in first year competing at nation’s largest Arabic debate competition

A team from Earlham College students went toe-to-toe with students from some of the largest and most prestigious universities from around the nation at the U.S. Universities Arabic Debating Championship at Stanford University held earlier this fall.

The Earlham team participated in four debates, taking home best speaker individual awards in three of them. It was the first time that Earlham had sent a team.

“We were definitely underdogs—one of the only private liberal arts colleges there,” said junior Ihsan Alaeddin. He suspects that the other teams didn’t expect much of them.

Alaeddin was one of five Earlham students in the competition, which is sponsored by Qatar Debate and is the largest Arabic speaking debate in the nation. He was joined by senior Ahmed Deeb and sophomores Zain Hammad and Yara Matar. Ferris Odeh, a graduate from the Class of 2012 who is pursuing a Master of Education, was the team’s manager.

“We were really motivated by all of the encouragement and support we received from Earlham,” Deeb said. “We didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into. We knew the structure of the competition, but that’s it. We practiced a lot and were preparing like we were going to win from the beginning.”

The team structured their preparation sessions based on videos from past competitions. They used resources from QatarDebate and Earlham libraries to practice debating, and organized team bonding activities. Forty teams participated in the event with Earlham debating against students from institutions like UCLA, Texas Tech and M.I.T.

At the Golden Gate Bridge, from left to right: Ferris Odeh, Zain Hammad, Ahmed Deeb and Ihsan Alaeddin. Not pictured: Yara Matar.

“Competing in the quarterfinals was just an insane experience for us,” Hammad said. “I think it helped that we were all friends and come from such a small college community.

“We are all studying different things at Earlham,” he said. “Ahmed is going for pre-med. Some of us are interested in media and communications and sustainability. We could trust each other talking about different topics.”

Debate participants received free airfare and accommodations at Stanford. Earlham further supported the team by helping them establish a student organization called Debate MENA, short for Middle East and North Africa. The club attracts Earlham students who are passionate about discussing, learning and expanding awareness about topics from that region of the world.

“One of the things that I appreciate about Earlham is that the school admits people with really strong character,” Alaeddin said. The team was both tenacious and confident. “We always believed we had a stronger argument.”

All five team members come from countries where Arabic is the primary language. Deeb, Matar, Alaeddin and Odeh are natives of Palestine. Hammad is from Jordan.

“It was an amazing feeling to be immersed in a space full of Arabs and full of people who look like us and come from places that speak our first language,” Odeh said. “I think we all ran into people we knew and we met new people as well,” he said. “It gave us all more confidence living and existing with our identities in this country.”

The team has already been invited to return to next year’s competition as participants and judges.

“It was a very eye-opening and restorative experience,” Matar said. “It’s kind of a cliché to say, but experiences like these teach you how to think about the decisions you make in life and to create your own analysis of what people tell you.

“I was intimidated at the beginning, but because we were all friends prior to coming to Stanford, everyone was really respectful and encouraging. I couldn’t have dreamed of better teammates, honestly.”

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