In high school, Ameena Ruffin said she had considered joining the debate team her freshman year, but it always seemed to be a too much of a commitment, she said.
Her junior year, she decided to join, with hopes of kick starting a career as a lawyer. Now, the sophomore cultural studies major said she juggles her love of debate with academics and her ultimate goal of becoming a professor.
She said she likes to think that she is a calmer person since becoming a debater, she said. She could be antagonistic, and debate helps to channel her feelings.
Ruffin now helps to coach high school students at Baltimore City College outside of her debate life at school, spreading the idea that a good speaker doesn’t always follow the traditional debate techniques, such as being fast and technical – norms she has never fulfilled.
But over winter break she was surprised to learn that not only had she been named top speaker at a competition at the University of Texas at Dallas, but she was also the first African-American to be named.
“There are very few African Americans in the [debate] community,” she said. “Not too long ago there weren’t too many people who looked like me in the community so there were people who had to come in and lose rounds before I got there.”
She attributes coaching and reading to helping her become a better debater. Judging the high school students’ debates helps her realize what judges look for during her own.
“When you’re in a debate it’s hard to see the entire picture,” Ruffin said.
She, and the other members of her team, read a lot of material to familiarize themselves with a wide range of topics that could crop up in a debate, she said.
Ruffin said her grandmother imagines that her debates are like the presidential debates. But she said they are different. At an actual tournament, there is a lot of aggressive yelling from teams trying to make a case out of their arguments, she said.
“The arguments we put together are like thesis papers for a class,” she said.
Every year the Cross-Examination Debate Association asks them to focus on a particular arguments on at certain tournaments and this year, the topic is about energy policy, Ruffin said.
“We kind of take our focus away from what they want us to answer and ask what does that question mean,” she said.
The general idea with these questions is that people will leave debate and become policy makers, she said.
Her classes mold around her debate schedule, which means she takes all of her courses Tuesdays and Thursdays, she said. The rest of the week is dedicated to debate with some weekends traveling to different states for competitions for those that she coaches.
On top of her five classes and debate practices and coaching, she is a member of the Pi Kappa Delta Forensic Honor Society and jokes that outside of debate, she only has time for sleep.
“It’s hard to juggle, debate becomes your life,” she said. “It’s so hard to say why you do it. Sometimes I wake up at tournaments and I’m like ‘Why am I here?’ It’s something very intrinsic that makes you do it.”
Towson only has four members on the travel team, including Ruffin. The close-knit family that they form is sometimes hard to manage because of their casual style but they manage to bridge that gap, she said.
“Plane rides can be long, so it’s good to be friends,” she said.