International student argues her way to debate success

Yankun Li struggled with the language barrier at first. Now, she wins awards.

Students came from all over Atlantic Canada to Halifax to compete in a debate tournament at Saint Mary’s University last weekend. Normally, Yankun Li would be getting up to argue a point. But on Saturday, she was one of the head honchos.

The 22-year-old international student has been with the SMU debate society for three years, and she was the chief adjudicator for the event, known as the Gorsebrook Cup.

“I love it,” Li said. “Debate helps you practise English, critical thinking, and allows you to present yourself to different ideas.”

Li only started speaking it fluently before high school.

As chief adjudicator, her job involves picking complex debate topics and making sure the tournament runs smoothly. It can’t easily be done by someone without a good grasp of English.

Saturday, the topics ranged from the ethics of a hypothetical pill that forces you to tell the truth, to subsidizing “feminist porn.”

Li sat near the front of the university’s Burke auditorium, sitting upright and taking notes during debates. When it was time to deliberate, she led her team of judges out of the room. Twenty minutes later, she led them back in to declare the winners: a pair from the Dal-King’s team.

Breaking the barrier

At first, Li said, the language barrier held her back on the debate team.

Now, she wins awards.

Yankun Li holding a medal she won at a McGill debate tournament
Li after winning an award from McGil University in Canada.   Courtesy Yankun Li

“The more I practised, and the more I put myself in the context of Canadian society, the less difficulty I had expressing myself,” she said.

Li was born in the city of Taiyuan, in the Shanxi province of China. She came to Canada three years ago to study international development at SMU, and is doing an honours thesis on gentrification.

Joey Karam, president of the SMU debate society, is a big fan — and he knows her debating style well.

“An opportunity to basically praise Yankun publicly? Yeah, that sounds like something I’d like to do,” Karam said with a laugh.

Asked to describe Li’s style as a speaker, Karam said she’s speedy in a good way.

“The information she sends out there is always very strong, very good,” said Karam. “And when there’s so much of it, it’s very hard to refute all of it.”

Karam said she brings a different perspective to the debate team, which is mostly made up of non-international students.

He said it’s not always easy for international students in the debate world.

“A lot of debate societies care so much for competitiveness,” said Karam. “So someone who might not be the best English speaker might get shunned away.”

As for Li, right now she’s getting prepared for her next challenge: the British Parliamentary championship in Montreal.

The event is in two weeks, and Li is scheduled to compete as a debater. She says she’s “more than excited, but also nervous,” because it’s one of Canada’s biggest debate tournaments, drawing teams from around the country.

Julian Abraham

Julian Abraham

Julian is a graduate student in journalism at the University of King's College. His background includes radio, television, and a brief stint as an actor.

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