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Ashland's Own Wins International Debate

Una Kimokeo-GoesDebate champ wins more than contest

Una Kimokeo-Goes didn't plan on being an international debate star. The former Ashland High School honor student just wanted to have some fun with a few new friends half-way around the world. She came home with more than a trophy.

Una, a humanities senior at Willamette University, recently traveled to Poland to compete in an international debate tournament. The debate, one of the first of its kind, attracted students from Romania, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Poland and dozens of other formerly communist countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Una and her long-time debate partner, Heather Rice, represented Willamette. They were the only students at the tournament from the United States who opted to partner with students from other countries rather than compete together. "The point of going to this kind of competition isn't winning," says Una. "It's meeting new people and figuring out how to work together."

Una paired with Sylvia Popa of Romania. A few weeks before the tournament, all the students were given a list of possible debate topics, which included controversial international topics such as human rights abuses, the European Euro, the United Nations and U. S. immigration policies. Each student then researched the topics. Working with a partner several thousand miles away proved challenging. "At first, working with someone I didn't know was a little strange," admits Una. "Sylvia and I exchanged emails so we had some idea about one another. We talked via email about what we thought about each topic."

When the two young women finally met face to face in the little town of Novy Sacz in south Poland, both were apprehensive. "Sylvia was afraid we'd have a lot of differences, that I'd use terms she wouldn't understand or that maybe we just wouldn't get along," Una recalls. "I was afraid I might disappoint her."

The Pressure of Competition
The international competition proved to be a pressure cooker for the students. They were given their debate topics only 15 to 20 minutes before they had to speak. Each member of the two-person team had to speak on the selected topic for seven minutes. Una and Sylvia spoke on six different topics during the competition. Despite the pressure and the language barrier, Una says her Romanian partner did extremely well. "I can't imagine trying to think of an argument in something other than my native language," she says. "Do you think in your native language then translate it into English? I don't know how she does it."

What amazed Una even more was her Romanian partner's passion, especially on the topic of human rights violations. "Sylvia talked about the trafficking of women in her country," she says, her eyes shiny with tears. "She was really passionate about it because these are people she sees in her community. For me, human rights are something I read about, not something that affects my life every day. Sylvia was able to say, this happens in my neighborhood. It was very powerful."

Sylvia's passion and Una's debate expertise enabled the team to prevail over 20 other teams. They won first place in the team competition. The women were given a cash award of $100, which Una donated to her partner. Una also won the Best Tournament Speaker award.

Reward More than Money
For the Willamette student, the experience in Poland was eye opening and much more valuable than any cash prize. Una was deeply moved by her debate partner's presentation on human rights violations. She learned first-hand about the policies of Slobodan Milosevic from a Yugoslavian student who talked about how the dictator had crushed her country's economy. She got an up close and personal take on what it's like to work in a cancer center just 15 miles from Chernobyl. Polish students told her about being given iodine pills so their bodies would take in less radiation from the crippled nuclear reactor.

Her experiences in Poland have made Una more committed to promoting international debate. As soon as she returned, she talked with officials at Willamette about bringing Eastern European debate students to the campus. She also talked with her debate coach at Silverton High School in Silverton, Ore., where she volunteers about getting more students involved in debate. "I want to tell students who aren't involved in debate that they should be," she says, her voice rising with excitement. "Debate gives you opportunities to travel, to meet people and to discuss real issues."

What she learned in Poland also changed Una's worldview and made her more interested in international issues. For her, the world is now both bigger and smaller. "I learned a lot from my teammate and from all the other people I met," she says, touching the edge of a delicate hand-painted ceramic dish that Sylvia sent to her from Romania. "We may come from different countries and totally different backgrounds, but we have more similarities than differences."