The young men and women have a reputation for speaking their minds, and they enter the Somerset Building wearing game faces.

Their backgrounds are varied, yet they share a common goal: to be matched with someone willing to offer a vehement argument on any topic.

Welcome to the Boston Debate League High School Open Division City Championship and Suffolk Invitational. This annual affair hosted by the University is a March Madness-like event where students showcase their verbal and intellectual skills on a competitive stage.

The Boston Debate League has grown since its founding in 2005 from a small, volunteer-driven entity to a prominent education initiative. Its after-school program engages middle- and high school students, combining competition and fun with rigorous academic work.

Focus on U.S.-China relations

“These students are very impressive and represent the best of the Boston Public Schools,” said Suffolk Advertising and Public Relations Professor Frank Irizarry, who, with his wife and colleague Cynthia, helps coordinate the event. “I believe more than twenty of these students have gone on to attend our University over the past few years.”

This year’s two-day competition focused on public policy, specifically whether the U.S. government should substantially increase its economic and/or diplomatic engagement with the People’s Republic of China.

Competing in two-person teams, students debated U.S.-China relations in terms of military and economic issues, national security, human rights, and climate change.

Prepared for any argument

“You always have to prepare for both sides of an argument – affirmative and negative,” said Brooke Modestita, a senior at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers. “Although I love the competitive nature of debating, what really motivates me is the argumentation aspect of it all. I’m self-motivated, loud, and passionate.”

Deborah Adesiji, a senior at English High School, approaches debate from a somewhat different perspective.

“What I’ve learned about debating is putting the needs of others before yourself,” she said. “For example, during a debate, after giving your own argument, you’re supposed to wait for your opponent to offer their own point of view. Debate teaches you to have patience and respect for the people you’re competing against.”

Michael John was part of the Boston Debate League from the seventh through 12th grade at Boston Latin. Now a freshman at Dartmouth College, he returns to debate tournaments as a volunteer judge “because it’s rewarding to give back, and I remember the benefit of having judges when I was a debater.”

When asked what makes a good debater, John responded without hesitation: “A good debater is someone who has thought thoroughly about the argument that he or she is presenting and then communicates it well.”

Suffolk support vital

The connection between Suffolk and the Boston Debate League has grown over the years. Students enrolled in the Public Relations Campaigns classes taught by the Professors Irizarry volunteer at Boston Debate League competitions and assist during a two-week debate camp hosted by the University for Boston high school students during the summer.

“This is a win-win situation for everyone involved,” said Irizarry, who met his wife while the two were college debaters. “At Suffolk, it’s very important that we are known for being a good community steward.”

Boston Debate League Executive Director Mike Wasserman said that Suffolk’s role as a host school is vital to his program’s success.

“Having this beautiful space allows us to run these big tournaments,” he said. “Our program can’t run without a place like this.”

Wasserman said that the program offers a priceless experience to both Boston Debate League and Suffolk students, and that the future looks bright.

“Our goal is to bring debate to every middle and high school in the city,” he said. “I think the Suffolk community can play a significant role in making that happen.”

Michael John, Mike Wasserman, Brooke Modestita, Suffolk College of Arts & Sciences Dean Maria Toyoda, and Professor Robert Rosenthal, chair of Advertising, Public Relations & Digital Media