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Open to Debate

David Weeks ’10 bridges cultures by promoting spirited exchanges

When David Weeks ’10 arrived in Shanghai for his Swarthmore junior-year-abroad program, he became fascinated with the possibilities in China for both internal transformation and creating relationships with the United States.

“There was a feeling of overwhelming dynamism,” says Weeks, who majored in Asian studies and political science. “There are always huge changes coming along, and they are right around the corner.” 

He also felt “there could be cooperation in the 21st century between China and the U.S.—a win-win situation.”

Weeks spent two years after graduation in several jobs in finance and research but kept China in the back of his mind. Then he began talking to a friend from his high-school debate days, Gavin Newton-Tanzer, a Columbia graduate. Each had advised high-school debate teams during college.

“The recession was still on, and permanent jobs were still hard to get,” Weeks explains. While studying in China, he noticed that extracurricular activities were not as abundant in the Chinese secondary-school system as they were in the U.S.

“For me, debate was a transformation and made high school something that engaged me, not just school work. It made us [in debate club] better writers and thinkers,” says Weeks. “I thought it would be a fun gap-year-type project to run debate workshops in China.”

Two years later, it’s a serious business. Weeks and Newton-Panzer operate the National High School Debate League of China (NHSDLC), with teams on 300 campuses in every province in China. Weeks lives permanently in Beijing, giving training sessions for debaters, helping connect them with colleges in the U.S., running debate competitions—and maybe helping to contribute to Chinese secondary-school culture.

Though Weeks is fluent in Chinese from his time studying at Swarthmore, he and his partner ask Chinese students to hold debates in English. Weeks cites a few reasons: First, Chinese has nuances that might trip up non-native speakers like Weeks. Second, the authorities might frown on debating serious topics in Chinese but would allow them in English. Finally, it would have taken a job away from a local Chinese teacher, which Weeks and his partner definitely did not want to do.

Weeks says the quick, large-scale response to his efforts may have to do with the number of Chinese students trying to attend college in the U.S. “They are looking for things to put on their applications that aren’t just grades and test scores,” he says.

The interest goes the other way, too. Part of the way NHSDLC makes money—in addition to tournament fees—is sponsorships from American colleges.

“Particularly the schools just outside of the top tier are trying to recruit Chinese students,” says Weeks, noting that among others, Hofstra and the University of Kansas have sponsored tournaments and met with potential students involved in the debates.

According to Weeks, high schools are replacing Model UN with his debate program as a primary extracurricular activity.

Weeks envisions remaining in China for the foreseeable future—his girlfriend, Natalia Cote-Muñoz ’12 is there, and he has hired his first alum, Lorand Laskai ’13, as a debate teacher—and believes he is helping foster good relations between China and the U.S.

“Some of these students will find themselves in positions of influence in the future, and debate will be a way they can disagree and not have the loss of face or disrespect,” he says. “It is a constructive thing—to reach a truth or consensus. Having the young leaders of China subscribe to that approach is ultimately a small but tangible way to positively shape the future.”