Student trustee helps Liberians ‘find their voices’

Photo courtesy of Abangolee Caulcrick Photo courtesy of Abangolee Caulcrick

By Erica Magda

The United States government chose a solitary student to show Liberia what debate is all about.

In a rare opportunity, Chime Asonye was hired to represent the United States and to institutionalize debate in Liberia, mostly on his own.

He spent the first three weeks of the semester training Liberian university students, teachers and administrators to set up debate programs and intercollegiate tournaments with the six universities in the country.

“It was ridiculously amazing,” Asonye said of the experience. The junior in LAS and student trustee worked for Development Alternatives Inc., a company that the United States Agency for International Development contracted. The company’s project, Building and Reform for Democratic Governance, is aimed to enhance participation in political processes in foreign societies across the globe.

Liberia, being a post-civil war society, could benefit from democratic practices, Asonye felt.

“We wanted to organize a debate structure to help students develop constructive responses to issues that affect them … and learn to solve problems creatively while responding to differences of opinion in a more responsible manner,” said Rhett Gurian, senior grants manager for Development Alternatives Inc.

Asonye was a great fit for the task. The young, yet experienced University representative’s passion for debate is mirrored in the newly developing Liberia and its university students’ enthusiasm toward these new ideas for democratic communication. Together, the ideologies and plans established in those weeks were created for long-term changes in Liberia.

The recently named All-American debater’s passion for the spoken word is evident. He always has something to talk about at length. More often than not, his conversations are contagious, spiraling into a recent administration decision or an event happening that night on campus.

Now that he’s become student trustee, Asonye is usually taking calls and thinking of the list of things he has to do every day. Despite his many duties, Asonye seems carefree. He is constantly joking around and laughing in his high-pitched tone.

Asonye was recommended for the role as a consultant through his work at an Urban Debate League internship this past summer in Chicago.

Students aren’t typically granted this high-ranking position, which gave him much freedom and thousands of dollars to single-handedly develop and execute plans from scratch for universities, he said.

“Most employees are in their 30s and 40s, are doctors and all have masters degrees,” Asonye said. But due to his experience and credentials, the undergraduate was unexpectedly chosen.

Asonye co-founded and is president of the Illinois Policy Debate team on campus. At the time he was an Illinois student senator and founder of the LAS college outreach committee. Being of Nigerian decent, he worked in the maritime industry in Nigeria and interned this summer for the National Urban Debate League in Chicago.

“He had the expertise we were looking for,” said Gurian, who worked with Asonye. “Chime was the right fit for the discreet task he was working on.”

Personally making a difference

Asonye traveled throughout Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, where five of the country’s six universities are located. He spoke with upper-level administrators about the importance of debate and held coaching and judging workshops with staff so that they could run teams and tournaments.

“It was an opportunity to really make a difference in what I consider my home, who really needs it now as a developing country,” he said.

Liberia’s recent history is scarred with civil war, the first beginning in 1989 and second ending in 2003. In the following two years the debates were very disorganized. A Liberian organization, the Federation of Liberian Youth, described the post-war debates as violent riots where students protested against their classmates, university authorities and national security forces, Gurian said. The project aimed to “give university students a forum to communicate their grievances … in a constructive and reasonable way,” Gurian said.

In 2005 the country began to mend; Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected as president and Liberia has only begun to move beyond a violent past. Asonye said Liberians are disgusted with their history and post-civil war environment adorned with the dilapidated buildings, infiltration of primarily white non-governmental organizations and tanks still running down the streets. But he saw nothing but a sense of pride from the people he interacted with.

“They were saying to themselves, ‘We’ve had a rough time, but we’re gonna make it work,'” he said. Administrators and students alike were open to the project and Asonye’s ideas.

“They understood that things like debate … allow their students to get the necessary tools to affect the shape of Liberia’s future,” he said.

Asonye said that the most productive accomplishment during his time in Liberia was conducting a three-day debate camp for university students free of charge.

“The caliber of students who went to camp was amazing,” Asonye said of his group of 50. “They were student leaders – already the best of the best.”

They were receptive of him as well. “Chime related really well to the students,” Gurian said. “They respected his knowledge and seemed genuinely interested in what he was teaching them.”

He worked to hone many of their reading, writing and communication skills to help them become better debaters capable of coaching their fellow students.

Short-lived, but long-lasting

Asonye believes a great impact took place in those three days. He heard a newfound confidence in their voices.

One student, from Cuttington University, approached Asonye and said after camp, “Wow! That really expanded my mind.” Only a few days later he hosted a debate at his school and asked Asonye to judge it.

“Grassroots debate was there,” Asonye said. These were the tangible changes Asonye enjoyed.

“I’ve taught a (global studies) class, but I’ve never done anything like this,” he said. “It was mind-blowing to see that I can help these students who had no debate experience find their voices.”

Asonye said that the power of persuasion can “convince the international community to help support Liberia and rebuild and regain its crown as Africa’s first republic.”

His last task before leaving on Jan. 28 was launching a national intercollegiate debate unit.

Now that Asonye has been gone for a few months, Liberia has taken what he taught them and is beginning to handle things on their own. The Federation of Liberian Youth reported to Gurian that the universities were just missing a few pieces before the intercollegiate tournaments could begin, and continue for years to come.

“I was able to do something in two weeks (in Liberia) that took me two years to do here,” he said, referring to founding the policy and debate team on the Illinois campus. Having debated in a Chicago high school league with inner-city students, Asonye recognized this motivation of the underprivileged.

“I saw how they were motivated just like I was getting into debate,” Asonye said. “They have the passion to make it work – the determination.”

Asonye was elected student trustee for the student government at the University a few weeks ago. He said if it weren’t for the confidence he gained in Liberia, he wouldn’t have run.

“People tell me I’ve done a lot for being an undergrad, but I don’t think (my work) is ever finished. I don’t think the struggle is over,” Asonye said. “There’s always room to make a difference.”