Alumni Perspective: Ricky Cai

The Accidental Debater

July 26, 2020 – Personal Essay

Ricky Cai
Alum, Chicago Debates
University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)

Today, I am a debate coach — though, I can hardly recall my thought process as to when I became involved with debate in the first place. At first, it was promises of payment and travel that motivated my initial interest. It would turn out, however, that compensation for debaters ended the year that I happened to join. Nevertheless, I did end up staying with debate; much longer than anticipated, in fact.

The first meeting that I attended, I was drawn into the activities and the ambiance that the coaches had prepared. The atmosphere was so warm and inviting, that even as a relative introvert, I was convinced to stay — if only for a short period of time. The next few meetings, however, were much more different than I thought they would be. Our groundwork in preparation for our first tournament was completely foreign to me — most of which focused on verbal projection and speed reading.

Now, as a child from an immigrant family, who spent most of their time alone, the only person that I had much experience talking to was myself.  Even then, most of the talking I did was in hushed tones to make sure I wasn’t bothering anyone. A lot of the practice felt strange at first, whether it be the speed reading, the enunciation drills, the cross-examination practice, and so-on. Yet, the thing that I was most intrigued by was the community around debate. Whether it was the stories that my coaches told us or my peers who were having fun next to me, everyone was excited about debate. By the time my first tournament came around, I would end up losing my only round (due to the fact that my partner and I had double-booked ourselves in a separate event). Still, despite ending my first competition with the literal worst record of everyone there, I would end up staying with debate.

Since that novice year, I’ve asked my teammates about their initial impressions of me. I wasn’t surprised that many of them thought I would quit after a few meetings. After all, group work didn’t come naturally to me,  I didn’t enjoy speaking in front of large groups, and I wasn’t particularly successful competitively, even with more training and practice. As it turned out, I stuck with the team longer than most of my peers. Some thought debate interfered with their IB or AP courses. Others left due to justifiable personal problems or stress.  Some, like any club, just lost interest. If you’d asked me during that first tournament, I would have thought I’d fall into one of those categories, too. Yet, by the end of my first year, I was one of the most active members on the team. I even signed up for an additional activity called the Financial Literacy Debates.

After Financial Literacy Debates ended, my coach asked me if I was willing to take over as a part-time coach for the team. She was leaving for a new job, our other coach had to leave for personal reasons and I was one of two seniors left. The other senior had been in debate much longer than I had, but my coach said that it would be better for her to focus on competing. At the time, I had no other plans, so I ended up joining a summer debate camp and have taught debate as a coach since then. As of now, I’ve proudly managed to train two debaters — who are significantly better than I was — while also working to introduce debate to middle schools throughout Chicago.

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