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Two high school Lincoln-Douglas debaters present their arguments at the 37th annual Liberty Bell Classic, the debate tournament Penn for Youth Debate hosts every year. More than 500 high-school students attended this year.

Credit: Maegan Cadet

As the line between debate and bickering becomes less defined in Washington, high-school students are working to set a higher standard.

On Saturday and Sunday, approximately 500 high-school students dressed in business attire convened in Houston Hall to participate in the Liberty Bell Classic, a speech and debate competition hosted by the student group Penn for Youth Debate. Most students came from the Northeast, but some hailed from across the country to participate.

The LBC offers a variety of competitive categories, from Lincoln-Douglas Debate to Dramatic Performance to Student Congress. College sophomore Connie Hua, co-vice president of PFYD, noted the focus on public speaking in each category.

“These skills are all applicable to so many aspects of life,” Hua said. “They also give these students more self-confidence, which is really critical for a lot of teenagers.”

High-school junior Michelle Hillsman of Nazareth Academy High School in Philadelphia also stressed the importance of cultivating strong debate skills. “It’s important to learn how to voice your opinions firmly and clearly — and how to respectfully disagree,” she said. “Congress can’t do it, so we have to hope that someone else can.”

As several students described, participation in such an enormous competition did more than simply teach them the rules of speech and debate.

Rebecca DeMarco, a junior at Bishop Shanahan High School in Downingtown, Pa., noted that high-school students don’t always have the opportunity to participate in such professionally oriented organizations. “I really like being able to be a part of something so sophisticated,” she said. “Even though we’re only high schoolers, we have the chance to feel really important.”

Another Bishop Shanahan student, senior Dominic Gentile, described how the LBC influenced his practices as an aspiring performer. “For a normal show, you just perform, get some applause and move on,” Gentile said. “But here, we get critiqued on our performances. That really helps you to improve.”

PFYD is a student-run organization that aims to foster speaking and debating skills in Philadelphia region high schools. Members of PFYD volunteer in about 15 Philadelphia high schools, particularly targeting those that are lacking debate programs, in order to spread debate education.

Many of the Penn volunteers were beneficiaries of debate instruction in high-school and others get involved to give opportunities to local students.

All proceeds of the Liberty Bell Classic go towards PFYD’s own expenses. The majority of the Classic’s profits go towards running tournaments for the 15 schools PFYD coaches during the year. “I think that’s a big reason people choose to come here instead of going to Harvard, which hosts its high-school debate tournament the same weekend,” she said.

“It’s because of the giving back aspect.”

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