Speakers, debaters to face elite teams at tourney
By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau
Grand Canyon University’s speech and debate team has continued to earn individual honors and first-place finishes since its award-winning inaugural 2013-14 season. But this week marks a new challenge.
The team has 12 students competing at the biennial Pi Kappa Delta national championships which begins today at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. It’s the first time GCU has participated in the prestigious collegiate forensics tournament.
According to its website, Pi Kappa Delta, the oldest national forensics organization, promotes “the art of persuasion, beautiful and just” among college students who are learning to make an argument. For students who’ve been involved in similar competitions in high school or college, the organization’s national tournament is like a March Madness for those with natural gifts for public speaking and analyzing complex social or political topics.
For GCU’s relatively young team, it’s another opportunity to showcase the multidimensional focus of its members. GCU’s students are encouraged to compete in both speech and debate events, while many of the 80 other universities competing have larger squads and more resources that allow students to focus on one or the other.
“We’re trying to establish ourselves as a team that balances its speech and debate skills to become one of the elite,” said Barry Regan, a communications instructor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences who’s advised the speech and debate team during its first two years.
“In my experience, when they graduate they’re happy they focused on both and that they can demonstrate that range of ability in their careers,” Regan said.
Last year, the GCU squad was named the Division III National Champion in Individual Events at the National Christian College Forensics Invitational at California Baptist University in Riverside. The ranking was based on the size of the university and team. But the Ohio tournament doesn’t separate schools into categories. GCU’s talented-but-fledgling squad will compete against seasoned teams, some of which have nearly 50 students and several coaches.
GCU students competing in the Pi Kappa Delta tournament include:
Taylor Alandzes (freshman, psychology), Jesus Betancourt (freshman, secondary education), JilliAnna Davis (senior, communications), Emmett Foster (sophomore, Christian studies/communications), Austin Johnson (sophomore, business management), Zachary Kuykendall (junior, economics), Alaina Owen (freshman, secondary education), Thomas Rotering (sophomore, premed), Alixis Russell (senior, psychology), Chloe Saunders (freshman, elementary education), Victoria Saunders (sophomore, nursing) and Ashlyn Tupper (junior, English).
Also, as if one national tournament wasn’t impressive enough, the team’s top eight students will defend GCU’s individual events title from last year’s Christian College Forensics Invitational on March 20-23 at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood.
Making their argument
Unlike speech events, where students often prepare a piece in advance, students in forensics debates don’t know the topics they’ll be asked to address until the day of the event.
GCU’s team practices for debate events by digesting current events, identifying evidence in scores of journals and news sources and practicing defending and refuting arguments for both sides of hot-button issues. Issues surrounding the conflict in the Middle East, immigration, higher education, socioeconomics and minority affairs often get a lot of attention.
Regan said he asks students to focus on as many as 20 key current debate topics to anticipate what they might face in an event. This often means exploring alternative perspectives that might not jive with their individual beliefs, but students must feel comfortable constructing arguments on both sides, he said.
“Speech and debate is focused on getting into topics that we often tend to ignore,” Regan said.
Kuykendall, who came to GCU from Merced, Calif., said he and debate partner Rotering have been preparing “files” on various national issues in advance of this week’s tournament to create a bank of information to draw from for parliamentary debate.
“One benefit is we have a lot of people with limited experience, so we’ve been able to grow as a team,” Kuykendall said about how students have learned how to prepare for competitions.
“It feels like we’ve been prepping (for Pi Kappa Delta) all year,” he said.
Reflecting human stories
Speech events like duo interpretation, which Victoria and Chloe Saunders compete in together, require students to create scenes based on a text or from their own personal writing.
The Saunders sisters, originally from Fullerton, Calif., will be performing an interpretation of the memoir, “The Memory Palace,” which addresses the relationship between a schizophrenic mother and her daughter. Victoria, who portrays the mother, said she prepares by trying to put herself in the shoes of a mentally ill mother who often is unable to care for her child.
“The most important aspect for me is to pick something that you personally think is an injustice in the world,” she said. “That passion from yourself will go into your piece.”
Challenging topics like mental illness are common in forensics tournaments, where students must select topics that will appeal to judges, captivate audiences and address current social issues, ultimately delivering a piece that will earn them points.
Russell, the speech and debate team’s president, said she’s been working this year on a piece that raises awareness about domestic abuse in the transgender community. She interviewed a transgender person for perspective and investigated facts about the violence reported within the community.
Conveying polarizing or culturally sensitive subjects is part of the allure for forensics students. But to earn points, students must present a balanced argument while staying within the parameters of their event.
“If you’re up there too long, you can lose points,” said Russell, of Farmington, N.M. “It’s really hard (to cut material)… But you have to look at the big picture and see what flows best.”
After all the competitions and practices, Russell said GCU’s team is looking forward to Pi Kappa Delta, considering its early successes.
In February, the team finished first overall among four-year universities at the 2015 Pacific Southwest Collegiate Forensics Association Spring Championships at Moorpark College in California. It also finished in the Top 5 among four-year universities at two separate tournaments in San Diego, and debate students swept the junior parliamentary debate division at a collegiate forensics tournament at Cal State Long Beach.
“It’s really humbling to see all that talent,” Russell said. “The least experienced people on our team are so gifted and they’re only going to improve over the years.”
Reach Michael Ferraresi at 602-639-7030 or firstname.lastname@example.org.