Princeton High seniors created their own summer debate camp for students

Summer camp might conjure up thoughts of swimming pools, camping and the great outdoors for most people. But Princeton High School senior Amy Wang associates summer camp with other things: crossfire, case studies and resolutions.

Those terms were bandied back and forth across the Princeton Public Library’s common room during Wang’s inaugural summer debate camp, which ran from July 31 to August 4. Roughly two dozen eighth, ninth and 10th graders from area schools came to the camp free of charge to learn the finer points of debating from experienced students.

“The fact that we have very dedicated high schoolers who are really giving individual feedback and assistance to these younger students is crucial,” Wang said. “They can get it all in their community for free.”

A typical day of camp included group coaching session about a particular aspect of debate such as rebuttals, crossfire rounds, and logical fallacies. Attendees were then split up into teams of four. They wrote arguments pro or con for a case. For her first camp, Wang chose to have participants debate the merits of a national carbon tax.

On the last day of camp, teams debated each other. Each team assigned one person to deliver the case, one person to rebut, one person to cross-examine the other team, and one person to deliver the closing argument. At the end, a panel of judges decided on the winner. It was just like the kind of debates Wang engaged in all the time on her high school debate team.

Wang picked up debating during her freshman year, partly because she’d seen other people do it before and admired the confidence they seemed to have. As someone who had just moved to Princeton before high school, Wang was hoping some of that self-confidence would rub off on her.

“I was kind of feeling like I didn’t have a community to belong to and couldn’t find the confidence to do a lot of things or make friends or put myself out there. Debate kind of provided those skills,” Wang said.

One of the new friends Wang made through debate is fellow senior Hamza Nishtar, who co-organized the camp. Nishtar started by helping Wang apply for grant money to fund the camps and ended up becoming a more significant part of it.

“I just told (Wang) that I’d help in any way she needed me to and she encouraged me to become a full-on partner for the whole program,” Nishtar said.

Together, Wang and Nishtar facilitated two camps; one in Princeton and one in Trenton. The Trenton-area camp was run through an organization called Urban Promise that promotes summer activities for underprivileged youth.

Teaching at Urban Promise was a much different experience than teaching in Princeton. Most of the kids were in middle school; some were as young as 10 years old. None of them had ever done debate before, which forced Wang to get creative.

“We started off with a vanilla ice cream vs. chocolate ice cream debate,” Wang said. “We had people split off based on their preferences and then we gave arguments for why we should have vanilla or chocolate the next day. Whoever won, we would bring that ice cream flavor in.”

“At Urban Promise, we had a little over an hour at four different sessions and that was it,” Nishtar added. “It was more about introducing what debate is and talking to them about some current issues that would be the debates we’d do at the end of the program.”

Debate camp is on track for a return to both Princeton and Trenton next summer, but the future is uncertain beyond that. Both Wang and Nishtar are seniors who plan to go to college immediately after graduation. Wang says she’s hopeful the debate camp will outlive her time in Princeton and even spread to other towns.

“The idea is for us to be able to present this debate camp and give the logistics of how to run it to other librarians so they can enlist their own volunteers to act as counselors and implement a similar camp,” she said.

Wang is still on the debate team at Princeton High, albeit in a less formal role because she is also focused on college applications, editing the student newspaper’s sports section and a demanding class schedule. Her debate efforts now go toward planning the next camps.

Of all the things that still need to be figured out on that front, Wang is certain of at least one: her debate camp will always remain free. “One really important thing for me is to make the camp as accessible financially as possible so that more students who are interested can do it without an opportunity cost,” she said.

The appeal of the camp goes beyond merely being free. Rather, both Wang and Nishtar found that the participants were getting to know one another on a more personal level than they would at a traditional summer camp.

“We thought with this debate camp, maybe we’d be able to let people meet with other students and make some friends,” she said.