VBI Family: Interview with Ellen Noble

Ellen Noble graduated in 2013 from Macalester College with a B.A. in Political Science and Philosophy, and is currently pursuing an M.A. in International Security at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. She has interned at Human Rights Watch, The Constitution Project, and The Nonprofit Roundtable. She debated for four years at Walt Whitman High School in Maryland, where she qualified twice to the TOC and won the 2008 NCFL tournament. She has worked as an assistant coach at  Apple Valley High School. She attended VBI as a student in 2007 and 2008, and returned as an instructor in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2013. 

What was it like being a Public Policy Intern at the Constitution Project? Did any skills you learned from debate carry over? 

Interning at the Constitution Project was an amazing experience. It’s a non-profit think tank that builds consensus on pressing legal and policy questions with a focus on criminal justice and civil liberties. I had the opportunity to work on a range of different projects, including efforts to strengthen privacy protections in U.S. cyber security legislation. It was particularly exciting to see the challenges of the legislative process first-hand.

Of course, general research and writing skills that I developed in debate were useful.  But I think the skill of crystallization, which is often overlooked in the classroom, was particularly helpful. The ability to quickly synthesize a lot of arguments is necessary to write on complex issues in an organized manner and to build consensus among people with different political interests.

You’re studying International Security at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. What shaped your interest in that field? Did the debate topics your senior year have anything to do with that? 

Debate definitely contributed to my interest in international security. I remember as a very young debater, Tanya Choudhury showed me her favorite card by Samantha Power, so I decided it was my favorite card too. I always enjoyed debating IR topics the most, particularly the ICC and nuclear weapons topics from my junior and senior year.

You’re a research assistant at Georgetown- what research project are you currently working on? 

I’m currently doing research for my professor’s upcoming book on oversight and accountability in the intelligence sector. This is a pretty hot issue right now, so the work has been really interesting. I’m also doing research for another professor to help him build a curriculum on covert action.

Tell us about your work with Human Rights Watch! What do you do?

At Human Rights Watch, I work on issues related to the Internet and human rights. For example, HRW just published a report about the electronic surveillance of human rights activists and opposition groups in Ethiopia. HRW is also involved in efforts to re-evaluate U.S. intelligence-gathering programs. My work consists mostly of research and writing, as well as attending hearings. It’s exciting to work with so many passionate people and to work in an office that’s in constant communication with offices around the world.

What would you like to be doing five years from now? 

Well I’m starting law school at Georgetown in the fall as part of a joint degree, so in five years I’ll hopefully be finally done with school. I hope to be practicing law, preferably related to national security, human rights or civil liberties. Right now I’m interested in public interest work, but that could change. I have a lot of different interests and just don’t know where they’ll lead me career-wise. I do know I would like to have a dog in five years. I’d also like to learn how to cook and play tennis.

What is your favorite memory from VBI?

A lot of things come to mind – like sophisticated cheating schemes at pub quiz, Frisbee games, a particular perceptual dominance drill in top lab 2009, and countless gatherings at the Mexican restaurant at the end of the Santa Monica pier. At VBI, I had the opportunity to teach a lab full of talented second year debaters for three years in a row. One of my favorite memories as a staff member was when some sort of prank war broke out one night between two generations of students in this particular lab (the Old Testament and the Gospel). I’m pretty sure there was some property damage involved, which I don’t condone, but it was really fun to see the students bond within their lab and even more fun to see them remain close friends years later.

If you could give one piece of advice to a young debater, what would it be? 

In terms of debate success, learn to lose. That doesn’t mean embrace losing or quickly forget and move on from bad losses. It means be resilient, confront your weaknesses, and figure out how to improve without all the self-pity. The notion that some people just hit a ceiling at some point and can’t get any better is a lie; I have seen way too many students far surpass the “ceilings” that everyone else thought they had. 

Finally, the debate community is a place where a lot of struggling kids find friends, a voice, a passion, or a place they belong. In that respect, debate saves lives. But there are also a lot of people who aren’t reaping the benefits of debate and who don’t have the same powerful and transformative experience many of us have. In fact, there are people who have horrific experiences in debate. Consciously think about the kind of community you want to create and how to make that happen. The debate community has some bad habits that get passed down every year. Don’t emulate all your favorite lab leaders, coaches, or judges – be better than them.