“The moment when someone gets it ... those are just beautiful, beautiful moments."
When he takes the stage during a debate competition, Eric Tang ’17 positions his body carefully behind the podium so that the other team doesn’t see his left leg shake. Even after three years of debating, there’s an ever-present fear, a churning nervousness during his speeches. And he loves that feeling.
“I know that at some point in my speech, I’m going to stumble,” Tang says. “I’m going to hang for a moment, but I know that I can keep pushing myself through that and remain calm. …It’s a rush. It makes me feel alive.”
During his prep fall, Tang joined Exeter’s Daniel Webster Debate Society looking to discuss real-world issues, learn to build logical arguments and become better at thinking on his feet. But he had another reason, as well.
“I’ve always been a quiet person, which means sometimes I have trouble speaking up when I really need to, especially before I came to Exeter,” he says. “I was too quiet. I was too shy. I didn’t have enough confidence to really speak up. I wanted to change that.”
Tang’s decision to try overcoming his introversion led him to a national stage this spring. He was the only Exeter representative to qualify for the World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championships (WIDPSC) — a five-day tournament with 96 competitors from 11 countries.
Through four rounds of competition at the WIDPSC, Eric partnered with randomly assigned students from Australia, Hong Kong, Canada and South Africa. He advanced through the tournament and closed out his experience with a debate in front of an audience of 200. He returned to Exeter having placed 17th overall, fourth in Impromptu Speaking and first in Parliamentary Debate.
“Since starting debate I’ve found that I can think much more fluidly and I express myself much more articulately,” he says. “From Harkness discussions to late-night conversations with dorm mates to internship interviews, these skills have been a massive help over the last three years.”
The real value, Tang adds, is the “intellectual empathy” that develops as participants listen carefully to other viewpoints and work to see issues from all perspectives.
“I like to think about it as seeing the world from another point of view,” he says. “A debate will force you to argue a side you don’t believe in or that you haven’t even thought about. I think spending time to build an argument and then putting it to the test is really good at stretching people’s ability to step into other people’s shoes ... to have that intellectual empathy ... to see the world from another angle.”
Tang has learned that his introversion can be a gift. “Often, quieter people make better debaters,” Tang continues. “They listen more. They think more before speaking. They go through things in their head before jumping out there. That’s something that I’ve come to value in my time at Exeter.”
As he heads into senior year as the debate team’s captain of curriculum, Tang looks forward to helping younger students and novices learn to handle their nerves and find their voice in a discussion. Teaching is something he’s considering as a future profession, and he’s been spending his summers instructing middle school students in science and creative writing at a Bay Area nonprofit.
“I’ve always really loved teaching other people,” he says. “The moment when someone gets it — when their face just lights up or you see them apply what you’ve taught them to something else — those are just beautiful, beautiful moments. They make me really happy.”
By Mike Nagel