Speech and Debate has it together, with good reason
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the May issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.
Story by Laurie Merrill
Photos by Ralph Freso
Grand Canyon University seniors Zachary Kuykendall and Thomas “Roter” Rotering walked stoically down the hall after competing in their final debate as a pair.
They were side by side, a familiar position for the two Speech and Debate Team members who had competed just that way, side by side, in hundreds of debates since their freshman year.
“That was it. Wow,” said Kuykendall, clasping his hand on Rotering’s shoulder. “It’s been a career.”
Their last hurrah — an argument about whether Scotland should secede from the United Kingdom — was held at GCU’s first national college tournament, the 2017 National Christian College Forensics Invitational.
In another building at around the same time, sophomore Tommee Gleason was giving a speech — one of five he prepared for the event — about the dangers of using thumbprints to unlock cellphones.
Unlike passwords, he said, thumbprints are not protected under privacy laws.
“We rely so heavily on information in our smartphones that they have become extensions of our minds,” Gleason said. “The digitalization of our memories means our minds are getting hacked.”
Senior Tatum Kaiser kicked off her after-dinner speech with a joke about online dating.
“My roommate has had a ton of luck,” Kaiser said. “She’s already on her fifth marriage.”
Her character was stunned by the number of romance-seekers who appeared to be running “depression-is-sexy” campaigns.
“Depression isn’t sexy or ugly. It just is,” she said. “Lying about it because you think it’s cool, is uncool.” All in just four years
These students are just four of 20 on GCU’s Speech and Debate Team, but each individually represents the team’s growth, success and hard work — as well as its tremendous heart and soul.
Only Kuykendall and Rotering have been on the team since 2013, when its director, College of Humanities and Social Sciences instructor Barry Regan, launched it.
“Our team back then was just a question mark,” Regan said. “There were only nine students and few with any experience.”
Rotering had a background in debate, but he seemed too kind to be competitive. Kuykendall had neither debate experience nor the ability to sustain eye contact.
As their confidence grew, so did the team’s, Regan said. It is now one of the best in the country in parliamentary debate, finishing the year ranked 14th out of 179 schools.
And Kuykendall and Rotering “have turned into the some of the best debaters in the country,” said Regan.
It wasn’t always so. They always had chemistry, but they had a lot to learn.
If they were “Star Wars” characters, Kuykendall said, he’s the impulsive Hans Solo to Rotering’s patient Obi-Wan Kenobi.
“I did a 180 in terms of how I viewed the world,” said Kuykendall, who hopes to help coach GCU’s team next year and eventually go into politics. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for debate.”
From Kuykendall, Rotering learned more self-confidence. He also has learned to put up with Zach’s yelling.
“Sometimes he just gets excited and decides the entire floor needs to hear his point,” Rotering said, jokingly. “It’s a powerful personality trait that only gets on my nerves if my face happens to be inches from his mouth.”
Rotering, who wants to go into public health administration, also gets his share of kidding for being so clean-cut and polite and because “I have a few idiosyncrasies that the team doesn’t let me forget about.”
“They often distill my favorite arguments and use them against me in weird ways,” he added. “It’s all in good fun in the way that a close friend circle or family would tease a person.”
The two argued as a team until this year, when Regan decided to pair each with an “empowered woman” — Rotering with sophomore Jasmin Sharp and Kuykendall with junior Taylor Alandzes.
“It was truly rewarding for me to see how much they succeeded in empowering Jasmin and Taylor, who raved about them,” Regan said.
When they reunited at the GCU tournament, it had been 364 days since Kuykendall and Rotering had competed as a team. Both felt they had unfinished business and wanted to top their previous year’s tournament performance — which they did.
“Now when I’m with Roter, it’s almost like debating myself,” Kuykendall said.
No Thomases, no doubt
Yes, Kuykendall is loud, but he is also smart, funny and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, Gleason said. As co-captains, he and Kuykendall hang out all the time.
He and Rotering are also buddies because they are both STEM majors. Gleason is studying computer science.
“So we have these really long, nerdy conversations about all kinds of different science topics,” Gleason said.
They also are part of the team’s proud history of Thomases who don’t go by Thomas, Tommee said.
“Roter is one of the most mild-mannered, composed people I’ve ever met. But if you watch him during a debate round, he makes the funniest faces,” Gleason said.
Gleason loves chocolate milk and once bought a few bottles from a California gas station on the way home from a tournament.
“I opened up the bottle and took a big drink of what turned out (to be) the most sour, chunky chocolate milk I’ve ever tasted,” Gleason said. “The team jokes to this day about that traumatic experience.”
Kaiser, who graduated in April with a B.S. in Secondary Education with an Emphasis in English, joined the team for the 2016-17 academic year and is grateful to be among passionate scholars who want make a difference in the world.
“I can’t even express the amount that the community has meant to me,” Kaiser said. “You have people who are there to learn and engage in topics and stretch their knowledge and challenge their beliefs.”
Kaiser steps out of herself when giving a speech.
“You snap into performance competition mode,” she said. “We are given characters who are real people. They actually exist, they have lives. To do justice to them, I can’t go up there and be myself. I have to separate it from who I am.”
Regan’s father, Richard, has missed only two debates in his son’s coaching career, and the GCU tournament was not one of them. Father and son were often together, heads bent over paperwork, lunching quietly or solving last-minute problems. Regan’s mother, Robin, also attended.
Spending 20 hours a day with people for three days over the course of many tournaments also creates a feeling of family.
“In the crucible of debate tournaments, we confront both the most hopeful and the darkest parts of humanity, but through it all, we love and support our teammates,” Rotering said. “We share the same jokes, the same technical language, the same ultimate goal. We make mistakes and watch each other’s backs through some of the most adrenaline-filled, exhausting moments of our lives.
“All that together makes for a tight-knit group of people.”
Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.