First international student at the helm of oldest club on campus

‘Breakthrough:’ Yao wins Queen’s Debate Union election

Image supplied by: Austin Yao
Austin Yao is an accomplished debater and QDU President.

Qixuan (Austin) Yao, Art Sci ’24, joined debate to practice his English. This year, he returns as the first international student President of the oldest club at Queen’s.

Yao, a Queen’s student from Shanghai, was elected as the 180 president of the Queen’s Debating Union (QDU). Now a decorated debater, Yao’s path to becoming the first international student debate president had its obstacles beginning with English being his Second Language (ESL).

“No one expected me to run for president at all,” Yao said in an interview with The Journal. “I feel like it’s a breakthrough.”

QDU was founded in 1843, predating Queen’s student government the AMS. QDU advanced in every tournament in the Canadian circuit last year, maintaining their annual position at the World’s Universities Debating Championships.

Improving his English was Yao’s first challenge.

“I [was] fine using my English to order food from Tim Hortons, but I couldn’t have deep conversations with people. I found the most competitive activity I could do to practice my English,” Yao said.

Yao remembers his first debate for QDU vividly.

“I completely f—ed up,” he said. “After one round of debate, I asked my partner, ‘What is politics?’
My English wasn’t good. I severely doubt anyone understood what I said.”

Today, Yao holds multiple Canadian debate titles, including the 2023 Grand Championship at the prestigious Sutherland IV tournament, held at Queen’s this year.

For Yao, learning English was not enough—he had to learn how to communicate effectively in a Canadian context. Canadian debaters argued differently than their Chinese counterparts, something that Yao was shocked to learn. Canadians generally prefer utilitarian arguments over categorical ones; the opposite is true in China.

When presented with a hypothetical situation where you could use a machine to give you infinite resources, most Canadian debaters would choose to use the machine, Yao explained.

“[In a typical Chinese debate] you don’t necessarily need to choose the machine because infinite resources don’t necessarily equal infinite enjoyment,” Yao said.

Yao knew the linguistic and cultural differences are an obstacle, but he credited his worldview as a Chinese international student with giving him advantages during some debates.

“It’s a benefit, because I have special knowledge of politics in China,” Yao said.

For students who use English as a second language at Queen’s, the language is just as important socially as it is in debate. The language barrier is isolating, according to Yao, and makes adjusting to Canadian culture—and feeling at home at Queen’s—difficult.

“If you can’t even have a coherent conversation with people, sometimes people would rather not invite you to a party,” Yao said.

“It’s a big challenge. I haven’t figured out how I can solve it other than to grind really hard on English.”

Yao found his community in QDU. His partner from his first debate is now one of his best friends. There is a bond that forms when traveling across the country to debate tournaments, which Yao likens to “soldiers in a bunker.” Yao remembered one tournament at Western where he stayed in a house with four teammates.

“We couldn’t even sleep, we were laughing the whole night. The next day, no one could focus, but we somehow won,” he added.

Despite the breakthrough Yao’s presidency represents, QDU continues to have very few international student members. For Yao, QDU can bridge the gap between the Queen’s community, international students, and students whose second language is English.

“In this club, people are weird, they’re willing to discuss everything in a friendly manner, and [it has led] me to understand Canadian people,” Yao said.

During his presidency, Yao would like to promote QDU across campus, and specifically to international students.

“It’s really, really hard for international ESL students to just have a conversation with people,” Yao said. “I hope there’s a way I can help with that.”

—With files from Sophia Coppolino


debate, international students, QDU

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