COD Forensics Club wins big at tournaments, but the rewards of participating are more than tangible


College of DuPage Forensics Team

Tessa Morton, Reporter

When Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School became the site of another school shooting, the students had already been long prepared to be something other than victims. Now those students, and their preparation, have become an inspirational model for young people at the College of DuPage and across the nation who envision themselves as potential activists or who just want to be able to speak with confidence when the occasion arises.

The Parkland students’ ability to clearly communicate well-researched ideas has sparked a torrent of conspiracy theories online, with some accusing them of being crisis actors with scripted speeches. All of these theories have been debunked. The secret of their eloquence traces back to a countywide debate program.

The Broward County Public Schools Debate Initiative, began in 2012 with 15 high schools, and is now active in elementary, middle and high schools across the county, with about 12,000 students participating. Students who participate increase their GPAs and literacy scores, and are more likely to graduate high school and attend a four-year college. The Parkland students appearing on TV and radio stations across the country are examples of what students can achieve when preparation meets opportunity. Prior to the shooting, the Parkland students debated gun control in class last November.

Cem Addemir is a member of the College of DuPage Forensics Club, and was not surprised to see the Parkland students speak so well. The club participates in multiple debate competitions at the state and national level.

“There is an expectation that younger citizens don’t comprehend as much, but if we gave them a chance I think they can demonstrate that they do understand a lot more than we think. We underestimate the power our voices have.”

Another COD Forensics Club member, Amy Ayyad, reiterated this.

“I feel like most people see Millennials as helpless,” she said. “So when they see young people talk about issues like gun control, they are shocked to hear us speak up on things we are passionate about or that are important or controversial.”

Like the Parkland students, the COD Forensics Club students have worked tirelessly to develop the skills necessary to speak with confidence on complex issues. Max Campbell, another COD Forensics Club member, was inspired by one Parkland student, Emma Gonzalez, as she spoke with conviction at a recent rally.

“Seeing her speak in front of this massive crowd, this plethora of reporters shoving their mics down her throat, would normally be terrifying for someone her age, but she carried on with such strength and passion in her words about this violent act, and through that started… a revolution,” Campbell said.

Kacy Stevens is the director of debate for the COD Forensics Club, and she explained further why the public speeches and political engagement of the Parkland students had been seen as so impressive and why the students have been seen as skilled beyond their years.

“Forensics students learn information literacy at a really high rate,” she said. “They have to research all of what they are talking about. They have the ability to look at information, and know which is credible and which is not. That’s what we are seeing in the national gun debate. The students are armed with information literacy in a way that we are not used to seeing from young people.”

Stevens made clear that this was not a skill that was unique to the students of Marjory Douglas High, but rather a skill that Forensics students have. Forensics students are just not usually given a chance to showcase this on a national stage and in connection to such a controversial and topical issue.

“The Forensics community nationwide is watching them, because we know what they’re doing,” Stevens said. “It is the same thing we have always known our students are capable of. This is just the first time the rest of the country is seeing it. They’re questioning it, because they feel it’s not possible that these students aren’t being coached to speak this way, but I know it is possible. They learned it. They studied it. And they’re proficient at it.”

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High is not the only school with successful orators making waves in the world of competitive Forensics. COD’s own Forensics Club has been sweeping competitions here in Illinois and across America. Over the last three weeks, the Forensics Club has been recognized for months of hard work. The COD team received a windfall of awards, at both the Illinois State Forensics Tournament that took place March 1 to 4 and the Novice Nationals that took place in Boston from March 9 to 11. At the Illinois State Tournament, the COD team took first place out of all the community college teams. A total of 29 awards were won by 15 students. The COD alumni who were competing as part of four-year College teams also did exceptionally well.

“If you look at the top awards in debate, COD students or COD alumni, won every single top award,” said Stevens.

The students also did well at the Novice Nationals, where first-year debaters compete. The COD team came in second overall when competing against both community college and university teams. They came away with 11 awards combined.

All of this recognition was a culmination of months of grueling work. Starting in the fall of 2017, the students have been putting in a minimum of five hours of practice every week. They work with coaches and spend even more time practicing on their own or with team members. She equated it to how a sports team would train. There are scheduled practices, but students also need to constantly work on their craft on their own time.

All of this commitment does not include the time spent travelling to and from events. As Illinois is one of the most competitive Forensics states, in the spring alone they traveled almost every weekend and between October and April. There were 15 major tournaments.

Ayyad joined the Forensics Club last year and started competing in the fall. Like her teammates, she finds herself in the office until 9 or 10 o’clock at night. As an education major, she knew the skills developed while debating and speaking would be vital for her, and saw the work she put in, as an investment in herself.

“I knew it would be very time consuming but I knew in the end it was going to be worth it,” she said. “I knew it was going to benefit me in the long run for my career.”

Campbell also felt the time put into Forensics was worth it for his desired future career in film.

“I’m a lot more confident,” Campbell said. “Before I was loud and brash, but I didn’t have confidence behind my words. [Forensics] taught me to be a lot more focused and precise with the words I wanted to say.”

Addemir, also has seen the positive effects that Forensics Club has had in his life.

“I feel more empowered,” he said. “Knowing how to handle yourself, knowing how to talk and manage conflict. In Forensics we go out to get judged. It helps when people are critiquing you because you learn to take it easier.”

Stevens spends a lot of time coaching and working with the students as they prepare for competitions. As a former COD student and Forensics Club member herself, she had seen a lot of these strengths develop into real world benefits for many of the students in the club.

“By and large, Forensics students are more employable, because they learn things like self-presentation cues and how to manage their image,” Stevens said.

Stevens said employers want people who know how to dress appropriately, how to walk and talk and compose themselves. Forensics students learn to demonstrate these crucial characteristics. They also learn about team dynamics, group communication skills and how to manage professional and social relationships. One thing all the team members and Stevens focused on was the importance of time management skills.

“[In high school] they didn’t give you a step-by-step process on how to organize your life or your day on a piece of paper, “Campbell said. He learned those skills from his coaches.

The skills developed in Forensics Club also reap benefits that go beyond the workforce. At a time of such significant political division young people participate in Forensics as a way to bridge divides and learn to communicate effectively and respectfully. In debate, whether you agree or disagree with an idea, you must prepare for and understand both sides of an argument.

“It teaches empathy,” Stevens said. “When you have to stand in someone else’s shoes and argue for their side…you walk out of a debate and say, ‘I never thought about it that way before.’ It also enables them to argue against [a topic they believe in] even stronger, because now they understand where it’s coming from.

“When you live in a vacuum and you don’t get exposed to different ideas, you are not effectively prepared to interact with those ideas when you are confronted with them,” Stevens continued. “The first part of civic engagement is knowledge.”

The term Forensics means “used for formal debate or discussion” or “related to or used in courts of law”. Forensics Club students participate in competitions, where individuals or teams compete by debating or speaking in various events.