University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa undergraduate student Cullen Slavens became a top debate finalist after duking it out against elite debate teams from universities across the globe at the Duke Open debating championships, hosted by Duke University and held online, April 9–10. Slavens was among 80 participants who beat students from top schools, including ivy league schools Harvard, Princeton and University of Pennsylvania to make it to the event’s Open Grand Finals. He serves as president of the Mānoa Debate Union, a registered independent organization, which he helped to establish last year.
“Debate is such a great learning experience, and it feels good to compete against top teams and learn from the best at the same time,” said Slavens, a senior and a 4.0 economics major in the Honors program.
A member of a number of online debate groups and forums, Slavens was able to build his connections with other debate teams during the pandemic when in-person competitions were canceled. As a result of those relationships, the Mānoa Debate Union now regularly holds cross-training online events for its members to practice and debate with other teams across the country and participates in a number of competitions.
“One of the great aspects of online debate competitions and forums is that it provides a huge opportunity for schools like UH Mānoa that don’t traditionally don’t have access to top debaters and debate events on a regular basis. It’s something that grew out of the pandemic that has really taken off and is here to stay,” said Slavens.
Slavens and debate members have also recently competed in well-known debate competitions, including the Seattle University IV where he was a quarterfinalist. He is also the reigning Hawaiʻi state debate champion.
Slavens, a Kamehameha Schools Kapālama graduate, will be earning his economics degree in May. In his free time, he also studies music and ballroom dance. His future plans include going to law school.
“I really enjoyed my collegiate experience in debate and at UH Mānoa, and I really encourage others to look for those opportunities or even create their own,” Slavens said.
New members welcome
While UH Mānoa previously hosted a debate team, it has been inactive for a few years. The Mānoa Debate Union, which boasts more than 260 participants from more than 20 countries, welcomes new students interested in learning about debate or improving their speaking skills.
Tierra Sydnor, an English and French major and vice president of the Mānoa Debate Union, said it provided her with a diverse community that shared similar interests during the pandemic.
“Since starting I’ve seen a dramatic increase in my ability to think on my feet and my communication skills,” Sydnor said. “Even as a beginner, everyone was very helpful and patient while I was learning British parliamentary debate style. I never thought I would be the type of person to join the debate team, but now I look forward to every practice.”