Sibling influence in clubs: Debate

Vivien Sweet, Staff Writer

For the majority of aspiring debaters in the Middle Division (MD), the path to becoming a member of the Upper Division (UD) debate team starts in seventh grade, when the MD Debate program opens to MD students. That is, unless a sixth grader happens to have an older sibling on the UD Debate team who is president of the club, co-Director of MD Debate Leyli Granmayeh (11) said. 

In sixth grade, after running into MD Debate advisor and history teacher Katharine Rudbeck after school, Leyli and co-Director of MD Debate Sasha Snyder (11) were able to watch their older brothers, Nader Granmayeh ‘19 and Aaron Snyder ‘19, debate in an informal Horace Mann tournament open exclusively to UD debaters. 

After months of hearing Nader talk about the debate team and finally seeing him debate, Leyli knew for sure that she was going to join the MD Debate program in seventh grade, she said. Aaron and Nader were debate partners, so watching them debate and prep together in part sparked her and Sasha’s initial interest in the club, Leyli said. 

Although Sasha was not as comfortable with the idea of public speaking, a large component of debate, hearing about Aaron’s positive experiences with the club was reassuring, she said. “I’m happy to admit that my brother being on the team really encouraged me [to join].”

During their freshman year on the UD Debate team, Sasha and Leyli went on to win the novice bracke of Ridge, made it to the triples round in the JV bracket at Harvard, and reached finals in the JV bracket at Penn, all national-level tournaments. “Ironically, most people would probably say that they’ve had better careers [so far] than Nader and I had,” Aaron said. 

Although Leyli and Sasha’s case of having older siblings on debate is certainly a unique one, they are not the only debaters to have older siblings who were also on the team. Currently, six out of the 15 upperclassmen on the debate team have an older sibling who held a leadership position on the debate team. 

Because debate does not require participants to have a specific interest in STEM or the humanities, the activity is inherently very popular, Nader said. However, he thinks that having an older sibling on the debate team often pushes younger siblings to join. “There’s pressure from the parents to get involved with activities when children are younger, and so it makes sense to funnel them into the same one that the older sibling had experience with,” Nader said. The family may already be familiar with the advisors and the club, especially if the older sibling enjoyed the club.

When Nathan Raab ‘13 and Alex Posner ‘13 founded the UD Debate team in 2010, they  relied on their friends and siblings to make a prolific debate team a reality, which Leyli said she heard from older members of the team. “It started as like a little debate team that a couple kids started, so they’re going to recruit who they can: their siblings, who’d naturally be interested,” Leyli said. 

In 2017, Nathan’s younger sister Elizabeth Raab ‘18 became co-President of the UD Debate team, and Alex’s younger brother and former Director of MD Debate Daniel Posner ‘18 ended up debating all four years of high school. Families such as the Raabs, the Posners, and the Mooljis—with Natasha Moolji ‘16, Taimur Moolji (12), and Saif Moolji (12) all having been presidents of the UD Debate team—have been vital to the success of the debate team by kickstarting the growth of the club, Aaron said. 

Since the team attends a lot of tournaments away from the Northeast, including annual trips to Minnesota and Kentucky, having siblings in debate helps create a less-stressful traveling environment, said Gustie Owens ‘18, who debated as partners with Daniel for three years. “Especially because you’re traveling, that intimidation factor as a freshman is very intense, so having a sibling makes it a lot more comfortable.”

The frequent nature of tournaments—two or three a month—makes the social side of debate important to the dynamic of the team, especially when it comes to deciding who gets spots to debate in tournaments, Leyli said. “Independent of siblings, there’s this idea that there’s an ‘inner circle,” she said. “Especially when you’re a freshman or sophomore, if you’re friends with the upperclassmen on debate, you get spots. And if you’re not, you kind of get pushed out of it.” Still, for younger siblings, it is easier to join the “inner circle” since they already have a connection with an older member of the team, Leyli said. 

Having an older sibling on the team also makes younger siblings’ names more well-known on the team, which can unintentionally lead to unfair bias when deciding tournament spots simply because there are so many inexperienced underclassmen debaters, Sasha said. “It’s hard to differentiate what advantages are based on how good you are at debate versus what opportunities you had.”

During UD Debate Research Director and Director of Outreach Ben Lee’s (12) freshman year on the team, there was a tournament with only three varsity spots for freshmen—all of which were determined by whether or not a freshman had a distinct connection to an older member of the team, he said. Lee and one freshmen were selected because they went to debate camp with an upperclassmen debater who was attending the tournament, and the third freshmen was chosen because they had an older sibling on the team. 

“It’s definitely the case that there are years where no one knows any of the underclassmen coming in,” Lee said. “And if there’s a sibling, that’s the first person that you know, [and] that’s the easiest person to give attention to.”

When deciding leadership positions, Aaron and co-Presidents Sajan Mehrotra ‘19 and Ethan Kim ‘19 worked together to come to a unanimous decision for all of the applicants, Aaron said. This process eliminates any chance that sibling nepotism will influence the presidents’ decisions, he said. 

UD Debate Research Director and next year’s debate president Annabelle Xing (11), who does not have a sibling on the team, said that there has been a recent move to dispel the idea that having a sibling necessarily benefits you. “At the end of the day, it’s still really about how hard you work for the team,” she said. 

Although there may be no overt bias towards siblings on the team, upperclassmen on the team still tend to pay closer attention to how younger siblings do at tournaments, Leyli said. “All that translates into being a bigger part of the team, being a more known member, and going to more tournaments,” she said. “That’s eventually, I think, what helps [siblings] get leadership positions. 

Over the past three years, four out of the nine presidents of the club had an older sibling on the debate team, and one out of the nine had a younger sibling on the team. 

Lee, who does not have a sibling on the team, did not end up receiving any of the positions he applied for. Although he does not blame his “debate shortcomings” on not having an older sibling who debated, he said that it affected his experience on the team, something which applies to all clubs—not just UD Debate. “It’s always easier to find your niche or find friends or to just be better known [in a club] when you have a sibling, and sometimes that does affect who gets positions,” he said.  

However, in recent years, the trend of sibling pairs in debate has been dying out, said Shay, whose older brother Ellis Soodak ‘16 was the MD Debate Director on the team. With the exception of debaters Owen Karpf (12) and Brett Karpf (10), whose older brother Alex Karpf ‘17 was the co-President of the UD Debate team, no one on the current team has a younger sibling in high school who debates. 

Since there are fewer younger siblings on the team, recruiting new debaters has been more important than ever, UD Debate Novice Director and next year’s debate president Sam Chiang (11) said. However, Mehrotra said that even when there were more debaters on the team who had younger siblings, there was no active effort on behalf of the debate upperclassmen to recruit siblings more than any other freshmen. 

Former co-President of UD Debate Honor McCarthy ‘18 and her fellow co-presidents, Elizabeth and Ella Feiner ‘18, made it their main focus to recruit historically underrepresented groups in debate: girls and students of color, she said. “I worry that the tradition of passing on your team to your siblings might deter other students from joining.” 

Honor does not think that the recent lack of sibling pairs will affect the dynamic of the debate team. “The team is always really close and in part that’s because there’s been the family legacy, but I think it’ll continue to be really close,” Honor said. “As long as it makes debate more inclusive, I’m happy with it.”

As debate becomes a more popular and time-consuming club, Soodak thinks that younger siblings will tend to explore other extracurriculars if their older sibling is an avid debater. “If you’re a debater, that’s kind of your thing, so fewer people would want to be committed to [debate] if their sibling also does it,” she said.  

Walker McCarthy (10), for example, chose not to continue with debate after freshman year and opted to join Model UN (MUN) instead, unlike his sister. Although Walker had joined both the MD Debate program—which he thought to be “not super rigorous”—and the MUN MD program, he found a community in MUN that he resonated more strongly with in high school, he said.