2018 Harpur Fellows: Ramya Gopalakrishnan
Senior creates 'debate camp' for low-income New York City students
For Ramya Gopalakrishnan, joining the debate team helped her find her way at Binghamton. The Harpur Fellows program helped her pay it forward and provide students with a valuable skill.
“I really wanted this opportunity,” Gopalakrishnan said. “It’s an amazing opportunity! Four thousand dollars to do something great. So, I was like: ‘What do I know?’ Debate.”
Gopalakrishnan, a senior majoring in environmental studies and philosophy, politics, and law, created and ran a two-week debate camp in New York City for students from low-income schools in collaboration with the New York City Urban Debate League and NYC Outward Bound Schools (NYCOBS).
When applying for the Harpur Fellows grant, Gopalakrishnan drew on an experience she had last summer helping her debate coach, Joseph Leeson-Schatz, run a debate-themed summer college program in order to design her own.
Gopalakrishnan grew up in Valley Stream and applied to Binghamton University through the special talent program in speech and debate. She credits the debate team with shaping the way she thinks and speaks.
“It really rewires your head and the way you think about things,” Gopalakrishnan said. “Honestly it was the most rewarding thing because I’m so glad that I look at the world differently now.”
Then, a family friend connected her to the students of NYCOBS, who are from historically underserved neighborhoods in Manhattan and other boroughs, and work on the project began.
“[NYCOBS] is exactly the demographic I wanted to cater this program to,” Gopalakrishnan said. “Students who wouldn’t have access to an activity like debate through their own school and who might not have the resources to pay for a camp. This would be a free opportunity, and it was perfect that my friend had that network already.”
Gopalakrishnan ran her “2018 Summer Debate Camp” of 15 students alongside an assistant coach from the New York City Urban Debate League. The students practiced speed-reading and tongue-twisters, analyzed and took notes on debates and learned from historical lectures on the chosen debate topic for the camp’s final tournament: immigration.
“All the activities and lectures made them practice analyzing and thinking critically, which is honestly the most important part of debate and what I got the most out of being on the debate team,” Gopalakrishnan said. “They came out of there learning more than they would learn in a whole month of school.”
While it was challenging to instruct middle-and-high-school-age students, Gopalakrishnan felt strongly that she was teaching them something important.
“Debate isn’t just public speaking, it’s argumentation,” Gopalakrishnan said. “Given the current political climate, I think it’s even more important, specifically for people of color and other marginalized communities, to be able to debate. To be able to spark that political inclination is very important.”
To keep that inclination going, Gopalakrishnan donated extra funds from her project as seed money toward starting debate camps at NYCOBS.
At the end of the camp, students received prizes for placing in the final tournament, as well as titles such as top speaker and most improved.
“We could tell by the way they were arguing that they definitely were absorbing the things we had taught them,” Gopalakrishnan said. “The best way to show that you know how to debate is to debate, right? And they were debating!”