Occidental Debate Team Makes Promising Return
Reviving an award-winning tradition that started on campus nearly 90 years ago, Occidental College has resurrected its debate team, which in its first competition this month saw three members finish in first, fifth and sixth place at the Novice and Junior Varsity National Championship.
The tournament was a big success, and quite an impressive performance for a first outing,” said Occidental College Debate Union (OCDU) coach Kate Shuster, who won the 1996 National Debate Championship as an undergraduate at Emory University – one of four women to ever win the title. “The students are still learning the event, of course, but the high individual awards show great promise.”
“Debate allows me to take the knowledge gained from a liberal arts education and apply them to real-world issues,” said junior politics major Xochitl Garcia of Kingsville Texas. “There are debates in classes, but there is something about competition that makes you go further in your analysis and synthesis of information.” Garcia won top speaker honors at the competition, held Feb. 11-12 at the Claremont Colleges.
Other Occidental standouts included fifth-place finisher Imad Khan, a sophomore from Claremont, and sixth-place finisher Evan Gramis, a freshman from Fresno. Neither student has declared a major.
The team’s return is being made possible through a grant from the President’s Dynamic Initiatives Committee.
“Debate is a challenging and exciting academic activity and often attracts the best and brightest students,” added Kenyon Chan, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the college. “We have recruited a terrific coach and I look forward to watching our team bring home many honors. I am delighted that the debate team is back.”
The college hired Shuster after students approached Occidental faculty about their desire for more debating opportunities. Forensics slowed in the 1980s against a rich backdrop of accomplishment. From 1916-18, Occidental didn’t lose a single contest en route to winning consecutive men’s and women’s Southern California championships. Debate continued at a lively pace through the 1950s, with participants routinely capturing national and local awards.
The current team includes a core of 16 students, and there are plans to expand the total to 150 students by the end of next year. Shuster, who has coached five national champions at four universities, said the team will take part in seven tournaments this year. Next year, the OCDU hopes to travel to competitions in London and Dublin, where the World Championships will be held. Students also will participate in ongoing community outreach, visiting area middle schools and high schools to introduce young protégés to parliamentary debate in an effort to improve oral literacy skills. Shuster is also the director of Claremont McKenna College’s Middle School Public Debate Program.
“There is no doubt that the skills learned in debate are the same skills that are the cornerstone of effective democracies in civil societies,” Shuster said. “No matter how well thought out and brilliantly formed your opinion is, somebody is going to stand up and tell you you’re wrong. Debate trains students to speak in public and have well-phrased research and ideas. It also gives students the skills they need to engage in reasoned discussion at an extremely high level. We’re teaching students to be citizens, but also effective citizens.”
“What Kate proposes to do goes beyond the usual sense in which we think of debate as the intellectual analog to athletic competition,” said Professor of American Studies David Axeen. “She wants to have an Occidental College Debate Union that will offer competitive debating opportunities to any students willing to do the work, but also to take this experience to students in nearby secondary schools.”
Under the parliamentary format, students are told shortly before a debate whether they will argue for or against a motion. Topics can include everything from stem cell research to American policy in the Middle East.
“My vision for the Occidental College Debate Union is to make it a marquee program, one of the truly outstanding programs in the country,” Shuster said. “I have a clear vision for what it is we need to do to set up a sustainable operation to enfranchise a lot of students immediately.”