Our Campus: From UBC to Harvard Law, Vivian Dong leads an examined life

Both scholarly and personable, Vivian Dong exemplifies the ideal candidate for Harvard Law School -- a program to which she was recently accepted -- yet she is also a typical college student, binging on Netflix TV shows, watching The Wire and attempting to foster as many kittens as possible.

As the president of the UBC Debate Society, a club that has been around for about 100 years, Dong has travelled extensively. From attending the The World University Debate Championship Championship in Malaysia, to debating at a prestigious event at the University of Toronto with a prize of a trip to Paris and a meeting with the Canadian ambassador to France.

But debates are more than just glamorous conferences in exotic places, as Dong points out, they are also very much about outreach. “We do a lot of outreach in terms of teaching other campus organizations, including public high schools, efficient debate skills,” Dong said.

Dong knows first-hand the substantial impact these outreach events have on the lives of kids in high school. In grade eight she entered the debate club at Sir Winston Churchill high school, and was coached by UBC Debate Society volunteer, Josh Sealy.

“Josh Sealy was one of the best debaters in the club, probably the best,” Dong said. “He won many national championships, did really well, and that inspired me to be very involved in debate, especially when I got to university … it was actually one of the reasons I came to UBC. He kind of showed me what kind of person I could be here."

Now in her fourth year and about to graduate with her BA in economics, Dong reflects on the academic and personal benefits she got from her involvement in debate. “Debate makes you a lot less ideologically pure. It really pushes you to be a lot more rigorous in why you believe things,” she said.

“I think a lot of people come to college with a certain set of political beliefs, easily categorized as liberal or conservative. But debate pushes you to think in utilitarian terms and to think about each singular belief you have and why you believe it; because the entire point of the activity is to break down how other people think," she said.

“It's really challenging in that way, but it is immensely rewarding. It makes you a much smarter and much more rigorous and intellectually honest person,” said Dong.

Debate has also transformed her academic experience, allowing her to push back on some preconceived notions present throughout her economics education.

“In economics we very rarely consider matters of distribution, or the differential impact on increasing something for someone who is rich or poor. We think in terms of efficiency, but in debate, we think about things that are inherently valuated.”

When asked about how she can manage a stellar academic record and so much debating, Dong says the key is managing time wisely, but also enjoying what you do.

“I really love economics so that’s never seemed like a chore to me … and for me and for all the debaters I know, debate is playtime -- it’s a very ambitious kind of playtime, but that’s how I have fun,” she said.

In terms of choosing law school as her next big project, Dong said, “The honest answer is that I do not want to go to graduate school because it takes too long and I’m not sure academia is right for me.”

“I like the idea of becoming a lawyer because it’s a service profession where we have a substantive impact and [get to see] immediate rewards and failures,” she said.

Ultimately, Dong is excited about law school as the new stage of her life. “At heart, it is also about caring intensely about the consequences of the law and the consequences of justice. [Law] seems to have a lot of the same values that I’ve acquired through practicing debate.”