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Not Debatable: First Woman from Georgetown Wins Top Speaker at National Debate Tournament

April 10, 2018 – Natalie Knez (C’18) became the first-ever female student from Georgetown to win the top speaker award at this year’s National Debate Tournament (NDT), and is only the fifth woman to receive the award throughout NDT’s 71-year history.

Knez, of Northbrook, Illinois, earned the highest number of speaker points in eight preliminary debates at the NDT, which took place late last month at Kansas University.

“My favorite thing about debate is the competitive incentive to think harder,” says Knez, an economics major and Education, Inquiry and Justice minor. “Debating has refined my research skills and ability to process information quickly. To be successful in college debate, you have to know a lot about a very expansive topic.”

‘Exceptional Talent’

Mikaela Malsin, Georgetown’s director of debate, says Knez’ win is a boon for female debaters in a competitive practice that has traditionally been dominated by men.

Malsin joined the university in May of 2017.

“We are all thrilled to see Natalie get the recognition she deserves for her historically successful debate career and her exceptional talent,” she says. “Younger debaters, especially women, look up to Natalie and are inspired by her. This award signifies, among many other things, the debate community's consensus about her rare abilities.”

Winning Second Place

The topic of this year’s NDT was the federal government and national health insurance. Knez and her debate partner, David Bernstein (SFS’21) of Salt Lake City, Utah, won second place in the tournament overall.

“Reaching the finals of the NDT is itself an extremely impressive and significant accomplishment,” Maslin explains. “It's not only that there are 78 teams competing – this is the culminating tournament for which everyone puts in maximum work and effort.”

Knez began debating her freshman year in high school and now participates in about seven tournaments a year. She’s qualified for the NDT four times and reached the finals twice.

“Reaching the finals and coming in second overall is the kind of achievement that most debaters can and do only dream of, like reaching the final round of the NCAA tournament during March Madness,” she adds. “That Natalie did so twice and David achieved this as a first-year student are both, themselves, historic accomplishments.”

Long Hours

Knez says she spent five to six hours a day on debate work and speeches the month before the tournament.

She gives Malsin a lot of credit for making this year’s wins possible.

“We spent a lot of time in the office developing new arguments and practicing speeches,” Knez explains. “Mikaela was especially awesome with David. It is incredibly rare for a freshman to reach the finals of the NDT, and I attribute that accomplishment largely to the long hours she spent with him practicing the same speeches over and over again and pushing him to debate beyond his years.”

Other Georgetown students and alumni who contributed to this year’s NDT successes are Jonathan Gibson (C’19) and Raffi Piliero (C’21), who also competed as a team at the tournament, and two other students – Renae Salunga (C’21) and Jong Hak Won (SFS’21) ­– helped with research.

Alumni Anastasia Kazteridis (SFS’17) and Jackson Erpenbach (SFS’17) also made the trip and Knez’ former debate partner Ezra Louvis (C’17), with whom she reached the finals in 2017, served as was one of the coaches, and Brandon Kelley (SFS ‘17) serves as associate director of debate.

Public Service Work

Despite her busy debating schedule, Knez has tutored with D.C. Reads and participated in multiple community-based learning placements, volunteering in classrooms through the Education, Inquiry and Justice courses.

She also coached middle school debate at Holy Trinity School in 2016 and 2017, and spent this past summer in Rwanda coaching at the Gashora Girls Academy.

“It was an awesome opportunity to see the similarities and differences in what is considered persuasive across distinct competitions and cultures,” she says.

After graduation, Knez will be teaching middle school math in Philadelphia while pursuing a master’s degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Debate has been a large part of my Georgetown experience, and I feel really fortunate to be on a debate team that receives great support from the university,” she says.