Like most of us in high school, I was guilty of pursuing many different hobbies at once, and piling up too many club duties to handle, oftentimes begrudgingly sacrificing one for another, more prominent position. Throughout my life, I never really felt a strong bond to most of the activities that I participated in. Some people aren’t like this at all—they find a passion and stick to it. Anish Welde (C’21) is one of these people.
Currently ranked Novice of the Year by the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA), Penn Debate Society member Anish recently qualified for APDA nationals at Johns Hopkins University, where he will be competing in April. In his first year alone, Anish was ranked #1 Novice at Rutgers' tournament and #2 Novice at Yale's tournament.
Unlike groups such as Mock Trial or Speech and Debate which aren't strictly on the APDA, Anish insists that APDA debate is a lot more challenging. With the APDA, you only get to choose your debate topic 50% of the time. You have to give three arguments in an eight and a half minute speech against a case that you may never have seen on a topic you may never have encountered. “I once had to debate about Mexican capital controls in 1990, and I had no clue what was going on,” Anish says.
Anish has attended tournaments almost every weekend since the start of the semester, and last semester he believes he missed only “one or two.” The good thing about the Penn Debate Society, according to Anish, “is that you can debate as much as you want and the club covers things like travel expenses. So it doesn't pose a financial burden to travel every weekend.”
Tournaments occur all along the East Coast, with a focus on the Boston area for APDA North. “Philly is in the middle so it’s well placed. I take Greyhound—the bus rides are 3–5 hours. The longest are to Boston. The bus rides are like 8 hours—it’s like a long flight.”
Although it may sound like the young novice has lots of experience, he wasn’t very active in his high school division. He started at the beginning of 10th grade and did World Schools, a different format more focused on rhetoric, at the United World College in Singapore. While in high school, he went to 18 tournaments across three years.
When comparing Penn Debate Society to high school debate, Anish says that “college debate is more demanding. When people come to college they become a lot better at critically analyzing things, so their arguments are a lot better.”
At the same time, he speaks to meeting a lot of great people through this activity. “This year I've partnered with a lot of different people. Some of them are from Penn, but also there's this concept called hybriding, so you get to partner with people from other schools which is a great way to make friends.”
As an international student, the struggle of being homesick can be overwhelming. Luckily, Anish has met a lot of other people who are international as well. A lot of freshman debaters in his novice class are international students, which has helped him "make friends with people from Team Philippines, Team India, and Team Pakistan.” The debate circle in the East Coast really opened up the opportunity for Anish to relate to fellow students that are also many time zones away from home.
Naturally, I inquire as to how one prepares to debate a topic that they have never heard of before. Without hesitation, Anish replies with a smile. “Debaters generally read quite a lot. We keep up with the news. I also think that a lot of arguments made in debate can be reapplied in different contexts, so at the start of the year I thought it was a lot harder for me to come up with opposing debates in such a short amount of time.”
At this point, I’m enticed to join the Penn Debate Society myself, so I ask Anish a question to reflect on: the cons of participating in an activity that, while gratifying, is a large time commitment. “A massive con is that you have to leave every weekend. Debate is a very mentally draining activity. It eats up your entire day on Friday or Saturday. I like to think of debate rounds as a sprint, but for the mind, so your mind is constantly active, constantly thinking, so it’s hard to study after, or at least I can’t. For me, it's been a pretty big strain on my academics.”
Regardless, his underlying motivation that trumps all is his love and devotion to the activity. “There's a very fun competitive aspect to it related to self–improvement. The second thing is just the community, the American circuit is great, both from Penn and from other schools. Some of the best friends I have right now are other debaters.”
Inevitably, there are side effects that come with being so involved in an activity and the mindset that it requires. Anish is not immune to this, and he speaks of how it both helps and hinders him in his daily life. “I run into some scenarios where I get in an argument with someone and they ask me to stop debating them, so it’s kind of hard to not communicate your ideas the way you would in a debate, even though that’s not how people think. So I guess it makes me a bit annoying as a person, just to put it bluntly. But it also helps a lot in classes, in presentations, in class discussions—you get to really engage with content in school in a very critical way.”
Anish realized he loved debate in high school during tryouts where he was dragged by one of his friends at the time. He stuck with it, and now it’s one of the most important parts of his life. "Debating is such a niche activity," he says, "that you don’t know whether you’ll like it until you try it out.”
Anish speculates that he’ll probably keep debating while in college. “Afterwards, I would definitely not mind coaching a school and staying involved with the community, if not for the competitive aspect then to give back to the community and staying in touch with all of my friends.”
His advice to others? “Don’t be afraid to start. You can be a freshman and still do really well. There’s something in debate for everyone. People debate for many different reasons, but there’s something for everyone—competitiveness, the moment of being in a round, love for community, love for disagreeing with people, and so on.”