Troy High School students Sohan Vittalam, Niheera Aedla and Om Shah will represent Troy High in the virtual finalists rounds of the International Public Policy Forum global debate competition May 1.

Troy High School students Sohan Vittalam, Niheera Aedla and Om Shah will represent Troy High in the virtual finalists rounds of the International Public Policy Forum global debate competition May 1.

Photo provided by Sohan Vittalam

Troy High students place in global debate competition finalists rounds

By: Jonathan Shead | Troy Times | Published April 11, 2021


TROY — It may be their first time ever debating as a team against others in a competition, but Troy High School seniors Sohan Vittalam and Om Shah, and junior Niheera Aedla have earned their place in the elite eight finalists rounds of the International Public Policy Forum, a global debate contest sponsored by the Brewer Foundation and New York University.

The trio, who created the debate team themselves in 2020 out of a little boredom and some curiosity, has had to make it through a qualifying round of more than 100 teams, as well as knock out three teams in a bracket of 64 global contenders to secure their elite eight spot. They’ll have to beat three more teams to become the contest’s world champions and win the $10,000 grand prize.

Prior to the elite eight rounds, teams competed against each other through written persuasive essays. In the elite eight rounds and moving forward, debates will be oral and held virtually. The finals will take place May 1.

“Despite the challenges students around the globe are facing due to the pandemic, these students chose to participate in a rigorous academic competition and have excelled,” IPPF founder Brewer Foundation Chairman William Brewer III said in a press release. “We look forward to seeing them compete — and celebrating their achievement — during the IPPF finals.”   

Vittalam said it feels great to have made it this far. “Going in, we didn’t really think too much about how far we’d go, but as we went, we’ve gotten slowly more excited, and we’re definitely pleasantly surprised,” he said. “It’s been a long process. This started, I believe, in October. Every week since then we’ve had to put in a few hours, if not more. It’s been a continuous grind, and we definitely think it’s paid off. We’re happy to be doing it.”

The high schoolers got involved in the competition not because they’re interested in public policy careers but because they were intrigued by this year’s contest topic: whether the benefits of artificial intelligence outweigh the harms.

“It’s been a unique experience, because we’ve faced three teams so far, and each team has been almost entirely different. Even if we go in with the same sides, the arguments they make are entirely new, and it’s a very adaptive competition. I think the different viewpoints, you can tell the different things groups prioritize,” Vittalam said. “We think it’s a good practice for balancing the needs of the world and what our global priorities are. I think it’s always good to have different viewpoints.”

The competition has led to the trio picking up other skills along the way as well, such as translating research into persuasive arguments.

“Over the course of the competition we’ve really improved on taking really complicated concepts and paring them into explainable segments that you can use to either prove or disprove a point,” Vittalam said.

Transitioning from debating on a physical stage to doing so over Zoom may be an adjustment for those who’ve participated before, but as newcomers, Vittalam said, it’s hard to say which may be more challenging.

“It’s gone really smoothly as far as we can tell. Zoom is a really helpful application, because we can have team meetings anytime we want, instead of having to meet up in person. I don’t think before the pandemic we would have thought of that. I wouldn’t say it’s affected things much,” he said.

“I think in the coming rounds, now that it’s going to be an oral debate instead of a written debate, it’s going to be unique, because I don’t think that’s something, from my experience, anyone has done before. Speaking in person in a debate, versus Zoom, that might be different, (but) I think so far just exchanging written papers, it’s been just as we’ve expected.”

As Vittalam, Shah and Aedla prepare for their upcoming finals rounds, Vittalam said the team isn’t thinking too much about becoming world champions; they’re thinking just about their next match. Winning the title and prize money would “mean a lot,” he said.

“I think representing Troy High School on a huge stage is something we haven’t really done before, and it’s something we’d be proud of. As far as the money, we really haven’t thought that far. We’re just focusing on preparing for our (next) round right now, and if we get the money, obviously, college is a big thing we have to think about,” he said, adding that they may also use the money to establish a debate team at Troy High School, because it doesn’t have one.

Overall, Vittalam said his team feels thankful to be part of the event and to have made it this far amongst stiff competition.

“It’s definitely a huge operation with the judges, the different teams and organizing everything from all across the world. I think not enough credit is given to the opponents we faced in the previous rounds, and even those we haven’t that were in the round of 64 or the qualifying round before that, because there are some really extraordinary teams. We’ve gone through some rounds thinking that we’re not sure we’d make it through, because we’ve had such qualified opponents.”

The seven other finalist teams consist of students from Colorado, Maryland, Slovakia, Mongolia, Texas, Maryland and Georgia. For more information, visit