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New camp seen as tool to recruit nation’s top high school debaters to UNLV

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Leila Navidi

Desert Oasis High School senior Ines Zapatier, left, 17, and sophomore Shania Edwards, right, 16, get help from UNLV Debate Team member Nathaniel Saxe, center, during the Rebel Debate Institute at UNLV in Las Vegas on Wednesday, July 17, 2013.

Rebel Debate Institute

Alyssa Lucas-Bolin, clockwise from top, the assistant director of the UNLV Debate Team, helps out Desert Oasis High School debate team sophomores Anthony Martinez, 15, and Alexandra Phillips, 15, and their debate coach Mary McInturff during the Rebel Debate Institute at UNLV in Las Vegas on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Last year, when Ines Zapatier transferred to Desert Oasis High School, she was disappointed to find out her new school lacked a debate team.

Now a 17-year-old senior, Zapatier was a promising orator at her former school, Spring Valley High School, and she wanted to continue debating. Zapatier thought debate would help hone her communication skills and perhaps help her in applying for college.

Determined to debate, Zapatier went to all of her teachers at Desert Oasis, begging them to help her start a debate team.

"I was upset our school didn't have it," Zapatier said. "I wanted to start a team up."

For a variety of reasons — lack of money, time and resources — Zapatier's teachers declined. That is, until Mary McInturff came to school.

The Desert Oasis English teacher had just finished a master's degree in rhetoric at UNLV and was willing to help Zapatier. With Zapatier's help, McInturff was able to recruit about 50 students to Desert Oasis' inaugural debate team.

Although there was a lot of student interest, McInturff quickly found out creating a debate team from scratch was no easy task. There was paperwork, parental permission slips and travel costs to consider. Most of all, most of her students — except for Zapatier — had no experience.

Enter the Rebel Debate Institute.

For the past two weeks, members of UNLV's nationally ranked team have been teaching local high school students — including six students from Desert Oasis — everything they need to know to succeed in college-level policy debate.

The institute, in its inaugural year, is the brainchild of UNLV associate professor Jacob Thompson, director of the Sanford I. Berman Debate Forum.

Thompson, who led UNLV's team into a top-10 ranking last year, wants to transform Las Vegas into the premier intellectual hub for the nation's top debaters.

To maintain UNLV's standing, Thompson realized his team needed a robust "farm system" to recruit the best high school debaters from across the country.

Thompson and his debate team began partnering with local high schools, bringing students to campus for workshops and helping to run tournaments. He also created the Las Vegas Debate League, which has raised $30,000 to help sustain high school debate teams across the valley.

"A successful, national-caliber debate team needs a good recruitment program," Thompson said. "We need a vibrant local policy debate community."

With the help of a $9,000 grant from AT&T of Nevada, Thompson launched UNLV's first summer camp to train promising young high school debaters. In time, Thompson hopes to raise the reputation of the Rebel Debate Institute so the university can recruit students from across the country to UNLV.

This year, the camp enrolled 25 students from Clark County and California. Each student paid $450 -- cheaper than most debate camps. UNLV also gave $4,000 in scholarships to local students.

Students learned practical skills necessary in debate, such as how to take effective notes during a match and construct a persuasive argument supported by good research. More advanced students practiced their fast-talking, argumentation skills under the tutelage of UNLV’s debaters.

Along the way, the students gained critical-thinking chops and confidence in public speaking — important skills for college and career. Research has shown students who debate are more likely to have higher grades, score higher on the SAT and graduate high school.

"Debate is so valuable to prepare students for college," McInturff said. "It's important to teach students good critical-thinking skills and arguments."

For Zapatier, participating in debate has helped her connect with her relatives. The debate topic this summer has been on immigration reform.

"I actually feel pretty amazing that I was able to keep a political conversation with my grandpa," Zapatier said. "I know I'm definitely going to need these skills in college and life.”

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