MTSU rising senior Jessica Rogers says she found her way to the Blue Raider Debate Team as a sophomore through then Student Government Association President Winton Cooper.
“And I kind of fell in love with it,” said the psychology and communication studies major from Olivia, North Carolina. “I didn’t even really start catching my wind until my second year on the debate team, this year.”
Now vice president for individual events for the team, Rogers was part of a dedicated core of debaters who completed another successful year, landing a host of individual and team awards at 10 tournaments around the country, including this spring at the International Public Debate Association National Tournament in Boise, Idaho.
That’s where teammate Elliot Certain, a rising senior social work major with an honors minor, finished as a quarterfinalist. The outgoing Phi Kappa Delta honor society president and current communications coordinator and treasurer said it’s “friendship and diligence” that attracts him to debate, an interest that started while a student at Motlow State Community College.
“I really wanted to be involved and that’s actually why I came to MTSU. So it’s been since around late 2021 that I’ve been debating,” said Certain, a Murfreesboro, Tennessee, resident. “Big shiny trophies are a lot of fun, but I’m here for the connections that I have. If it weren’t for the people, I wouldn’t come.”
It’s that level of commitment that continues to impress communication studies associate professor Patrick Richey, director of forensics and debate team coach. He, along with assistant coach and communication studies master instructor Natonya Listach, help guide the 15 “hardcore,” dedicated debaters and assist with the background work to prepare them during the week for the weekend tournaments.
“But at tournaments the older members of the team step in and they do a lot of the individual helping, so younger members learn how to debate, and the older members move into leadership positions,” Richey said. “And so in a way, they’re almost assistant coaches by the time they graduate.”
As one of those leaders, Certain has enjoyed the mentoring aspect of being on the team.
“I was on the officer board for the second year, and I had the privilege of bringing on a lot more new people, teaching them about debate and making sure that they’re kind of set up for success,” he said. “Seeing those people go on and do well in tournaments and do well in the culture of the team is something that I really enjoy. … And of course, winning big, shiny trophies.”
Growth in individual events
Another of those older members is spring graduate Derek Dismukes, a criminal justice administration major with a pre-law minor from Spring Hill, Tennessee. The Columbia State transfer said his interest in debate started in high school, and MTSU gave him another opportunity to renew a passion since debate wasn’t available during his time at community college.
“Debate gives you such an open mind because there’s so many topics you get, that you have no clue how to prepare on some and you learn so much within just a 30-minute span of prepping,” said Dismukes, former vice president of Phi Kappa Delta.
“I did debate because I actually really enjoyed public speaking, not even pursuing law at the time. I actually was doing it because I liked getting … up to just ‘argue.’ Not really yelling, but just trying to explain an opinion. But then that’s led me to pre-law where I’m actually doing mediation and getting a license in that for a career.”
Richey said Blue Raider Debate has a history of strong team debate but is now building on the individual events under the guidance of Listach, who “is working with them and we’re starting to get some traction on the individual and acting events.”
“We’re starting to win awards. Jessica has been a huge part of that. Derek and Elliot as well,” Richey continued. “So that’s been a big growth year for us, expanding the team a little bit because I think students could have both sets of skills — both competitive, where they’re debating each other, but also the individual speaking events as well, where they’re honing speaking skills.
“So I’m hoping we solidify our IE team more and then just continue the same pathway with debate, because it’s strong. We are definitely a powerhouse in Tennessee and in the region.”
‘Something I never thought I’d get’
Rogers even captured a team sweepstakes award — by herself — at the Hub City Swing tournament hosted at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg in the fall. The format was “a double tournament,” which is two tournaments in one.
“The team couldn’t go because there was a conflict that week, so I basically went alone to compete. And I spent two days just competing in individual events where I won, where I placed in multiple categories along with the pentathlon, which is the multi-category award,” she said. “But alone I was able to secure the sweepstakes for the team, which was something I never thought I’d get, and it led to a new rule on the team. You win a sweepstakes award, you get the binder, too.”
The “binder” is a special book that tracks which team members “break” in a tournament — survive preliminary rounds to get to elimination rounds — and who win their individual event as the top competitor.
“It’s one of those awards where you feel like you’ve hit your mile marker. You’ve done a good job, keep doing it, you are doing well,” Rogers said. “And when I brought home the sweepstakes award, we put that new rule into place.”
Quite an accomplishment by someone who had to overcome an intense fear of public speaking.
“I think I have had the biggest growth with my generation of the team because I was the one who ran out of the room crying,” Rogers said. “I had the biggest stage fright whenever I came to speak, and it’s a lot of people that kind of lifted me up and made me feel like it’s OK to fail, but it’s learning from the failure.”
The Irish experience
Another highlight of the year was MTSU’s debate team again hosting the Irish Times National Debate Champions from Ireland who participated in two friendly debates — an on-campus debate at the Honors Building and an off-campus event hosted by the League of Women Voters of Williamson County in Brentwood, Tennessee.
Richey said the Irish debaters typically visit five to seven universities around the country during their visit, and that it’s an honor they usually choose MTSU as their first stop.
“They always want to stop at MTSU first so they can visit not only our campus but the surrounding area,” he said. “They love the American food, and Tennessee has a lot of that and so it’s not only an honor to have them here, but it’s a huge honor for them to come here first. And they pick that, not us.”
Dismukes, who participated in the Brentwood debate, called the Irish team’s visit “a really great experience” and applauded Certain’s leadership as Phi Kappa Delta president “for putting that all together” for the host organization. In Brentwood, Irish debaters argued against universal health care while the MTSU squad put forth its benefits.
“So it’s really great that both sides got to argue a side we’re not familiar with — with not having universal health care in the U.S. versus Ireland, which has some form of it,” he said. “For every debate tournament you get like 30 minutes prep after you’ve learned the topic. So you sit down, you go through articles reading, trying to find what’s going to help you push your argument the furthest. … What I’ve learned over time is it’s not always just reading the headline. You do have to try and speed read some, get the right information.”
A successful year
Thanks to the “greatly appreciated” financial support from the Office of President Sidney A. McPhee, the team was able to fly out to the national tournament in Idaho this spring, wrapping up another successful year.
“We did well, we broke in every single tournament,” Richey said of the year of competition overall. “We won many of those tournaments, and they were either individuals winning awards or the team as a whole wins what’s called sweepstakes awards,” he said. “And then we did online debates as well, one with Queens College, New York.”
Richey said the team will begin recruiting new team members during CUSTOMS student orientation sessions throughout the summer as well as during visits to community colleges. He encouraged current students to consider joining as well. This past year’s team consisted of roughly 15 active members out of about 70 students total who participated as their schedules allowed.
“You don’t have to pay membership to be on the team, it’s a university-sponsored event,” Richey said. “So we have walk-ons, and you put as much into it as you get out of it. The team is open to any majors. As you can see, we have a diversity in majors (Current captain Joey Mego is a physics major.) We’re not politically affiliated. We’re accommodating, we’re welcoming.”
Certain agreed, saying the skills developed in debate can be beneficial to most any major or profession.
“I think that life’s really built on communication. So even if you don’t have a job in the future, you’re going to have to communicate with people and especially in debate. Whenever you’re in conflict, for some people, their first reaction is to get really red in the face and start screaming, throwing things,” Certain continued. “This teaches you how to stay calm in conflict and actually reach a resolution, not just there to fight. And that’s something that any major can benefit from, even someone who’s not going to college. I mean, it’s a fundamental of human communication.”
Meanwhile, Rogers looks forward to taking on more of a leadership role during the coming year.
“I’m heading into my second year as the vice president of the individual events. I’m also the new president of Pi Kappa Delta, so I will be having a larger role on the team next year,” she said. “We’re also going to be doing outreach. We’re going to get debate out there so people get the chance to learn the skills they have and grow their career development.”
Richey pointed to the professional success of former team member Abigail Barnes, who recently landed the debate coaching job at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and is finishing up her doctorate at Southern Miss. Other former members are also doing well. Katelyn Brooks is finishing her Ph.D. at Purdue University and Alex Fingeroot is in his third year at Northwestern Pritzer School of Law.
“And that’s one of the goals is to make sure our debaters, once they leave MTSU, whatever career they go into, they excel at,” he said.
For more information about the MTSU debate team, visit the team’s website or email Richey at Patrick.Richey@mtsu.edu.
— Jimmy Hart (Jimmy.Hart@mtsu.edu)
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