This spring, experienced debater Travis Chen concluded his high school career as a national quarterfinalist in the Lincoln-Douglas division at the Tournament of Champions in Kentucky.
Since the age of 13, Travis Chen has been in more than 300 debate competitions. Now after graduating from Palo Alto High School, Chen is focused on whether he will coach or continue his success as a debater at Stanford University.
"I was really into public speaking in eighth grade," Chen said. "And a lot of teachers thought I was noisy, so they thought I might be fit for debate."
Chen found his first tournament fun and said he learned a great deal. The experience inspired him to continue debate at the high school level.
Chen was drawn to the competitive nature of debate, especially the Lincoln-Douglas format in which competitors face each other one on one. In the debate, participants take opposing sides of a moral question, also called a resolution, which often centers on governmental policies. For example, "Is it morally permissible to kill one to save many?"
Chen described feeling nervous at his first tournament.
"But then I got into the groove of it," Chen said. "I was loud and obnoxious, I'm sure. I really enjoyed it."
Jennie Savage, head coach of the Paly debate team, worked with Travis during all four years at Paly. He seemed to "thrive on competition," she said. She observed him grow as a debater, honing his craft and specializing in the Lincoln-Douglas type.
"Chen was the most consistent circuit debater the team had," she said.
Students are given their resolution two months prior to a tournament so they have time to research the topic, which Chen noted is a large part of the debate process. By extensively researching both sides of a resolution, a debater can foresee the common responses that may come up during the debate.
Then during competitions, Chen said, "I would write out my opposing arguments while my opponent would be speaking, so I could get a head start."
In debates, students can go back and forth for up to seven rounds in arguing all facets of a resolution. As for judging methods, those differ between local and national tournaments. Parents decide which of the two opponents sounds more persuasive or who they would prefer to vote for at local tournaments. In national tournaments, however, most of the judges either coach or have been on debate teams.
Chen explained if an argument has three responses and an opponent forgets to respond to one of them, they will not be considered as winning that argument. While someone may respond to all arguments, there is still a possibility that their response was not strong enough to be considered a win.
The arguments posed in competition can sometimes challenge the student's personal beliefs, as Chen himself found. During one tournament, he was confronted with the question: Should terrorists be given the same due process rights as American citizens? He believed that they should, after doing detailed research on Guantanamo Bay.
"I initially supported that resolution on the affirmative side," Chen said, "but I realized after doing research there are definitely national security concerns that might justify a negative leaning."
As one of the top debaters of the Paly team, Chen was able to travel to several competitions including one in Addison, Texas, and another in Los Angeles. This gave him the opportunity to make friends from all over the country. His success in debate also served as an outlet for improving his research skills.
"I can also come up with cogent arguments right on the spot," said Chen, listing another benefit of debate.
Chen explained that "quality over quantity" more often than not wins a competition; he prefers to have a strong concise argument over having several weaker ones.
Though Chen has succeeded in defeating many opponents, there are two he said he has yet to win over: his parents. He has tried to use his debate skills on them, for example when wanting their permission to go out. He has reminded them of the chores he has completed and that he is responsible, but they always end up telling him "no," he said.
While Chen will have more opportunities to debate his parents, the same cannot be said for his high school debating days.
"My last round was bittersweet. ... I concluded my career rather satisfactorily, and I wouldn't have to spend my weekends at debate tournaments. I was sad that it was over because I've really enjoyed debate," Chen said.
Ever since his last debate, Chen has had more free time to play the cello and video games. He also had time to participate in the end of the year's many senior class activities.
Chen cited a possibility of returning to Paly to assist with coaching the team. He also added that there is a high possibility he will join Stanford's debate team.