Penn hosted the 41st annual Liberty Bell Classic, a high school speech and debate competition.

Credit: Ker-Cheng Chen

This Valentine’s Day weekend, you may have spotted over a thousand high school students swarming Penn’s campus, all dressed in suits. The reason? Penn for Youth Debate hosted the Liberty Bell Classic, a national level speech and debate tournament for high school students.

PFYD is a nonprofit organization that hosts free debate tournaments and matches local teams with Penn student coaches. All proceeds from this weekend’s tournament will go directly back to these activities.

For many participating students, the tournament was an opportunity to meet and compete against students from very different backgrounds.

“Actually seeing how [other students] structure arguments is a point where you can really learn from different styles and strategies,” said Chengfeng Shao, a senior at Boston Latin School.

The fact that the tournament was held right on Penn’s campus was a distinguishing feature of the LBC tournament.

“A lot of other tournaments [are hosted] in local elementary schools or middle schools, and it’s not the same experience,” College and Wharton sophomore and PFYD Tournament Director Edward Jing said.

The tournament’s speech and debate events took place in Houston Hall, Van Pelt, Huntsman and other buildings.

“There’s more reverence for where you are,” said Jonathan Zou, also a senior at Boston Latin School. Both Shao and Zou applied to Penn in the regular decision round to the Huntsman Program and the School of Arts and Sciences, respectively.

The LBC also invites students from schools affiliated with the After School Activities Partnerships to attend the tournament for free. Some of these students come from difficult backgrounds, and attending the LBC can have a significant impact on their future goals, Wharton junior and PFYD Vice President Rajan Sheth said.

“Here are kids who go to the University of Pennsylvania, and [our students] are able to relate to them on this one-to-one basis,” said Kate Sundeen, a judge at the tournament and coach from the Academy at Palumbo, a public school in Philadelphia. “It gives our kids a chance to be more aspirational...a lot of our kids now have more interest in Penn as a result.”

This is exactly PFYD and ASAP’s goal: to nurture a passion for debate and speech that takes the kids through high school, college and beyond.

“It’s a really great partnership we have with [PFYD],” said Sara Morningstar, debate manager at ASAP. “PFYD has all these fantastic college students who...recognize that they’ve had certain privileges in their own education...and they’re so passionate about sharing that with students in Philadelphia.”

Correction: This article has been edited to reflect the fact that Penn for Youth Debate hosts tournaments and matches volunteer coaches with high school teams independently of After School Activities Partnerships. A previous caption read that the tournament has not been hosted at Penn since 2012. In fact, it has been hosted at Penn annually for 41 years. The DP regrets the errors.

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