Jamaican students, aged 17, humble US university debaters

Two of Jamaica’s bright academic talents lifted their game in spectacular fashion recently to upstage older and more experienced individuals while walking away with a prestigious debating title.

Jacey Henry, an upper sixth form student of Titchfield High School located in the Portland capital of Port Antonio, and Campion College of St Andrew’s lower sixth former Ronaldhino McLean humbled their more fancied rivals in winning the Rollins College Great Debate 2022 over the hosts in Orlando, Florida, USA last month. Both are aged 17, and the sweet part of the victory is that they outdid high-flying students who are in their fourth year of university.

“It is a tremendous feeling, and a fantastic achievement,” said the duo’s coach, Germaine O Barrett, who is founder and executive director of Jamaican Association for Debating and Empowerment Limited (JADE), a non-profit organisation located in St Andrew.

The Rollins College Great Debate 2022 was part of a larger US-Jamaica debate and cultural exchange that began with a visit to the University of West Georgia in September. At that time, the debaters successfully argued the dangers to the environment posed by cruise ship tourism, pre-trial detentions, standardised testing in schools, online anonymity, among others.

The debates mark a longstanding engagement with US universities and JADE, which at times involves some of the top global universities like Oxford of England, and Harvard of the USA.

The feat marks the second that a Jamaican team was winning the Great Debate in four tries. In the final against Rollins College, the Jamaicans argued the point: ‘The US Government should not establish a law allowing US women to get abortions’. Rollins College argued against.

“The Jamaican students went up against fourth-year university students in that one,” Barrett told the Jamaica Observer. ” The audience, though progressive, was antagonistic, as our teenagers faced thunderous boos, and some people calling out ‘shame’.

“Our debaters stood strong, remained calm and focused, and fought hard and were worthy champions,” Barrett continued.

Of the nine judges, including one Jamaican and the others American, all associated with Rollins College, the Jamaican pair scored a six to three victory at the end of the vote.

According to Barrett, who became blind at the start of 2022, “the tenacity, wit, and infectious charisma of the debaters was a sight to behold, as Rollins, the proposition, and Jamaica, the opposition, engaged in intense verbal exchanges. Rollins opened with a thunderous presentation, from Enrique Alberti, arguing that adherence to principles of human rights, amongst other factors, demand that the federal government of the United States impose a nationwide law enabling women to perform abortions up to the second trimester.

“Jamaica’s Ronaldhino McLean came next with an equally mesmerising response, laying out their justification against the proposition’s stance. Team Jamaica signalled their vehement opposition, arguing that, given the lack of sufficient consensus among the respective states of the US to meet the constitutional requirement for amendment to the US Constitution, allowing for the codification of a law by congress, such a move would be grossly improper.

“They further argued that given the current political instability and frequent gridlocks within the United States, evidenced by the rise of radical disruptive groups, the actualisation of a federalised abortion mandate would widen the political divide and intensify the polarisation. This, they contended, would lead to a further weakening of the United States domestically and internationally,” Barrett stated.

Barrett said that the proposition’s second speaker, Anna Haber, argued that “a zygote does not yet have specialised cells and therefore is not deserving of the right to life. She stated further that this right should only be afforded to humans who possess a brain and consciousness.”

Closing out, Barrett continued to recap, “the substantive case for Jamaica, Jacey Henry launched a series of strong rebuttals aimed at the Rollins team. She then went on to expound on the separation of powers between the federal government and the states as is envisioned by the 10th Amendment of the US Constitution. She also provided additional evidence and analysis of the impacts of the destabilisation on America, and outlined that this destruction is exacerbated through the proposition’s policy of federally mandated abortion support.”

Of the victors, Henry would like to pursue her dream of becoming a medical doctor; while McLean wants to study politics, economics and philosophy.

Apart from Barrett, Rushana Jarret was the other administrator on the tour, with University of the Commonwealth Caribbean student Natalia Burton being the other member of the debating squad, which was supported by the JN Foundation.

JADE was formed in 2014, and has consistently created opportunities for youth and societal advancement through various programmes and projects, all aimed at enhancing critical thinking and effective communication. It is the national umbrella organisation for the advancement of debating, public speaking and critical thinking in Jamaica.

Barrett said that the successful teens went through consistent high-level training from JADE, through its two-year-old secondary-level Gold Club.

The club has some of Jamaica’s best and brightest high school debaters within its ranks, Barrett suggested, several of whom represent Jamaica, routinely, in international debate competitions and have made significant progress in gaining recognition for the island in respect of global debating.

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