Debate team talks its way to the top

Debate team members Arif Hasan, left, and Logan Chin organize information Wednesday night in Folwell Hall. The team, in its second year, is one of the top 20 college debate teams in the country.

Marija Majerle

Debate team members Arif Hasan, left, and Logan Chin organize information Wednesday night in Folwell Hall. The team, in its second year, is one of the top 20 college debate teams in the country.

When political science junior Kelly Nickel was searching for colleges in high school, she knew she wanted to go somewhere with a debate team. Initially she was interested in the University of Minnesota, but ruled it out of her top choices after learning there was no official team. The Colorado native earned a full scholarship for debate to the University of Wyoming , where she spent her first two years of college. The University now has that official debate team âÄî one thatâÄôs earned national recognition as Outstanding New Debate Program. And for that, Nickel transferred to the University this fall and will compete this weekend at DetroitâÄôs Wayne State University. The new program award, given by the Cross-Examination Debate Association , recognizes a new debate program each year based on its season long performance at nationally recognized invites, University director of debate David Cram Helwich said. Though the program is barely a year old, Cram Helwich said the teamâÄôs success has brought interest about debating at the University from high school students across the country. Out of 110 teams in the country, the National Debate Tournament organization put them at No. 21, and CEDA ranked them at No. 20 at the end of last season. The team took home a win at a regional tournament in Emporia, Kan., which ran Oct. 17-20, and plans on attending a tournament at Harvard University later this month. TheyâÄôve brought home six tournament wins in the novice or junior varsity divisions since the program relaunched, Cram Helwich said. Now, the goal is to break into the upper level of competition. âÄúIâÄôm really impressed with the rapid developments of the new debaters,âÄù he said. âÄúThe challenge for us now is to develop our debatersâÄô talents so they can become successful in the varsity divisions.âÄù The team, a co-curricular program supervised by faculty, returned last year after budget cuts removed them from campus in the late 1980s, Cram Helwich said. A student-run debate team formed in 1999, but did not compete nationally. Helwich, who debated competitively in high school and college, said he has coached debate teams since the start of his graduate studies at the University of Miami , Florida. He was recruited specifically to bring a co-curricular debate program back to the University campus. Cram Helwich said he was surprised at the amount of interest he received from students. The UniversityâÄôs team has between 20 and 25 active members, he said. Nickel said itâÄôs exciting to be on a successful team. Between a debate course and doing research for upcoming debates, Nickel said she devotes 20 to 30 hours per week to the activity. Her involvement will help her when she attends graduate school, she said. Cram Helwich said debate helps develop research, critical thinking and public speaking skills beyond what any classroom experience is able to give a student. âÄúThe challenge of having to outwit people who are just as motivated and just as smart as you are really drives people to learning for about the topic,âÄù he said. Developing these skills is one reason political science sophomore Catie Shawley said she joined the team. Shawley, who plans on attending law school, said researching and learning to argue both sides of an issue will be useful for her future career. Although debate can come off as intense, Shawley said itâÄôs not exclusively for people whoâÄôve had debate experience. âÄúPeople get intimidated by how intense the activity can be and the jargon we use to describe things,âÄù she said. âÄúBut, if you take a step back and simply look at the activity âĦ itâÄôs pretty simple once you boil it all down.âÄù With the team already winning matches against the University of Michigan , Emory University and Dartmouth College , Shawley said she believes itâÄôs possible for the program to be in the national top 10 in the future. Cram Helwich said although he likes to brag about winning, getting students to think critically is his ultimate goal. âÄúItâÄôs important to create a culture that fosters dialogue,âÄù he said, âÄúeven in the face of disagreement.âÄù