Senior Debater Creates National Virtual Camp


by Zach Jones

Senior Phoenix Pittman compiles evidence for his next debate tournament. Pittman founded the Online Debate Institute that ran last summer.

John Park and Zach Jones

Zach Jones and John Park

Pen furiously writes as their speaker conveys pages of information. After a brief pause, students from across the country chime in with dozens of questions. Delighted, the lecturer answers each one-by-one. For many, the idea of a lecture seems incredibly boring, but to debaters who attended the Online Debate Institute created by a Lindale senior, these lectures were the highlight of their summer.

Senior Phoenix Pittman created his own debate summer camp which was held July 13-24 in order to ensure an accessible educational experience for debate competitors across the nation. Around 90 different high school students from across the country attended the camp that Pittman co-founded with Garland High School junior Leah Yeshitila and 38 staff members.

“Everything went startlingly well,” camp administrator Patrick Fox said. “I’m really proud of the kids and the work that they did and while I would like to take credit for it, I can’t, because at the end of the day it was Phoenix’s and Leah’s hard work that made everything work.”

Pittman and Yeshitila founded the camp and began working on it last December before approaching University of Houston debater Patrick Fox about the camp last May. They made the camp with the express goal of creating an accessible debate camp that anyone could attend without financial issues playing any role.

  “I created it because both myself and other people I know have struggled with paying the financial burden because some camps can cost upwards of $5,000 just purely for tuition,” Pittman said. “Other costs could be food and transportation which we wanted to make a non-issue by hosting our camp online for free.”

Pittman organized the camp on the media platform Discord where instructors would lecture students over numerous concepts related to debate. However, the camp faced issues with server maintenance and connection problems which forced the three camp founders to adapt to problems on the fly.

The Online Debate Institute logo featured on the camp website. Pittman chose the name “Online Debate Institute” due to the sole focus of the camp being as online, digital, and accessible as possible.

“Logistics was definitely the biggest issue,” Fox said. “A good number of students couldn’t always make it which was fine obviously, it’s a global pandemic so we weren’t going to begrudge them, but given the fact that none of us had ever done this before it was very much a learn-as-you-go thing and I am honestly still startled it went as well as it did.”

Students attending the camp would work for upwards of eight hours a day attending labs, lectures, and practice debates as students prepared for the upcoming year. Nationally recognized debaters from across the country lended their knowledge to the camp to help teach the students.

“Getting people involved in the camp required me essentially begging people on Facebook that I knew from friends of friends to come teach at the camp,” Pittman said. “Interestingly enough though, some of the small mentor groups of students became year-long friends and peers and some of these small classes are actually still running today.”

Interested debaters can find the camp’s website at or the camp’s facebook page. In preparation for the upcoming year, the camp is preparing to post several facebook posts about the results of last year’s camp alums from this year’s tournaments.

“[The Online Debate Institute] taught me so much and moved me so far forward as a debater,” Dulles High School sophomore Vishnu Nataraia said. “I think it’s extremely important for the future of the community since it provides an activity that is usually very expensive with a free learning experience for all.”