More than a Hobby: How Debating Redefined the Course of My Education

by Rebecca Mqamelo | Feb 1, 2018

My passion for debating began in 2012 when I was in grade 8. The debating society seemed to be the one place that looked beyond the small bubble of life that was my traditional girls’ boarding school. It was a space where our seniors challenged us to engage in critical discourse and dare to believe that our voices made a difference.

I still remember my very first speech in 2012, which lasted a whopping three minutes, and the time I had a 20-second brain freeze during a provincial debating tournament. (Those memories make me cringe to this day.) Come 2016 though, I was head girl of my school, I had the amazing opportunity to be a member of two South African national teams, and the lessons I had learned from debate completely changed how I viewed my place in the world. Debating changed my life. Every aspect of it was an invaluable experience: the teamwork, the training camps, the 6 am preps, the 18-hour bus rides — at the time, it was tough and often overwhelming, but those challenges taught me to push myself.

Debating also made me restless. When you spend five years being told to question everything, to “elaborate,” and to “improve your strategy” (I admit I still have moments when I question exactly what that means), you develop the habit of looking beyond your horizons — seeking out challenges and not being confined by the expectations around you. Coupled with international exposure and a vast expansion of your world knowledge, you begin to see yourself not as an isolated individual, but as an agent in a larger ecosystem. I can’t count the number of times I have looked at the discourse in my own government and wondered how things might change if politicians were actually trained in formal debate.

This brings me to my next point: the world needs more debaters. The world also needs more people who are willing to step outside of their comfort zones and risk rising to their full potential. When I decided to enroll at Minerva, I had no idea what I was doing. I had to explain to my parents why I was “throwing away” the chance of free tertiary education with one of South Africa’s most prestigious scholarship programs in preference of what many who are not familiar with the institution might call an “online university that has no campus and lets you travel the world.”

Looking back, I can confidently say that coming to Minerva is the best decision I have ever made. If one thing is emphasized at Minerva, it’s that education is not about the institution you go to or the diploma you receive upon graduating. It’s about the experience of learning. “Learning” is no longer sitting in a lecture hall listening to a professor drone on, hoping to get a degree that, more than anything, simply reflects that you spent four years excelling at passing exams. Minerva’s classroom is whichever city we are living in at the time. We use the “city as a campus.” The focus is on experiential learning, critical thinking, and global immersion. We begin our first year in San Francisco and experience every semester after in a new country. By the end of our four years, we will have lived in seven different locations around the world.

More than this, one’s university experience is also shaped by his or her community. With an acceptance rate of just 1.6 percent (making Minerva the most competitive university in the world to get into), you can be sure that everyone who is here wants to be here. I live with a diverse group of classmates who represent 70 different nations. Many of them, like me, gave up the opportunity to study at prestigious traditional institutions in pursuit of an education that is relevant to the 21st century. In an environment like this, you can’t not push yourself. You can’t not strive to excel. It’s what everyone around you is doing — but unlike unhealthy competition, it manifests itself in a collective motivation to make a difference with the opportunities we have been given.

Admittedly, Minerva isn’t for everyone. It takes a deep love of learning, a thirst for the unknown, an embracing of uncertainty, and a desire to be challenged, to make this choice. As the second South African schools debater to enroll at Minerva (my classmate Josh is now my upperclassman, and partly how I found out about the institution), I want to extend the challenge to other South African debaters, as well as other young debaters around the world.

If you are nearing the end of high school and find yourself wondering where the road goes next, if you have excelled both academically and through your own initiative outside of school, if you do not feel that a traditional university will challenge you in the ways you seek to be challenged, then this could be the right step for you. Be warned: Minerva seeks excellence, drive, ambition, and an insatiable hunger to learn. It’s tough, and at times, overwhelming. But it is a choice that changes the course of your life forever.

Don’t settle for what is safe and expected. Choose the adventure.