FOR many people college was an exciting time, as it afforded enough freedom to be an adult, but without the grown-up responsibilities.
However, Ravonne Thomas-Matthews’ story is quite the opposite.
Thomas-Matthews, who is now part of the leadership team at the Jamaican Association for Debating and Empowerment (JADE), said college was not a fun experience. He described his time at the University of Technology (UTech), Jamaica as “the harshest time” of his life, due to personal factors.
Thomas-Matthews said he struggled with depression while pursuing his studies and was only pulled away from his frustration and sadness through debating. “It is not an exaggeration to say debating changed my life,” he said.
His first experience as a debater came in his fourth year at UTech, at an inter-faculty debating competition but the result was disappointing. “I came dead last in that debate because debating is more than speaking lovely,” he conceded.
“I joined [the competition] just for the fun of it and I thought I did really well. I was eloquent in my speech, and everyone was clapping and cheering, and some people were encouraging me to join the debating society,” he added.
He said that experience motivated him to learn more about the art of debating and to improve his skills. As a result, he began attending regular meetings of the UTech Debating and Public Speaking Society, where he participated in team training sessions.
“I found that I enjoyed it a lot,” he said, noting also that this new-found love saw him passing up on potentially life-changing opportunities.
“I remember one session there were prospective employers outside for a career workshop that was happening simultaneously with debate training, and I prioritised debate training over going outside,” he said.
Thomas-Matthews’ drive and passion for debating would later earn him a place on his school’s team to the World University Debating Championships (WUDC) in Thailand in 2020. The WUDC is regarded as the largest international debating tournament and one of the largest annual international student events. At the competition the UTech team was ranked the top performing institution in the Caribbean and Latin American region.
The opportunity for Thomas-Matthews to participate came through Germaine Barrett, founder and executive director of JADE.
“I just want to thank him for that opportunity. We went up against the ‘Oxfords’ and the ‘Harvards’ of the world and I got ‘myself handed to me’, but it was an absolutely amazing experience. I came back to Jamaica, and I used all that I learned abroad to win every tournament I entered after that,” he said.
His list of accomplishments includes winning the Tertiary Division of JADE’s e-Debates and the inaugural Eagles’ Debate Invitational (EDIV), both in 2020.
Thomas-Matthews said while he doesn’t get many opportunities to debate now, he still believes he is happiest when debating. “Debating is something that transcends psychology and the opportunity that debate provides is not only available at high school, nor only to head prefects. It was available to a random guy, depressed in the final year of university, and it can open doors for you.”
He was part of the JADE team that paid a courtesy call on the leadership of the JN Foundation at the JN Group Corporate Office in New Kingston in September. The meeting, which came ahead of National Debaters Week, also included Germaine Barrett and students from JADE’s Secondary Level Gold Club.
Claudine Allen, general manager of the JN Foundation, who welcomed the JADE team and students, commended Ravonne and the other members for pursuing debating, which she said continues to “unearth serious talent.”
It’s stories like Thomas-Matthews’ which convince the JN Foundation general manager – herself a former high school debater – that debating can be an effective intervention and educational tool.
“Debating can sharpen critical thinking skills, build characters, and foster collaboration and respect among peers. It encourages sustainable development and for us at the JN Foundation, we embrace and nurture longevity,” she said, reflecting on her own journey at the Glenmuir High School in Clarendon.
The JN Foundation is supporting JADE in its work to entrench debating in school curricula in Jamaica. Just recently, JADE presented a strategic plan to the Ministry of Education and Youth for the phased development of the activity in secondary schools across the country. The plan is designed to help Jamaica align with other nations that have integrated debating in their school curricula.