While Southern Illinois University Carbondale students were wrapping up the fall semester, Saluki Debate Team members Joe Locher and Tatiyana Rodriguez spent extra hours scouring the news for information and ideas that can help them in Thailand during winter break.
The pair of graduate-level students will leave next week to compete in the World Universities Debating Championship in Bangkok, Thailand. Locher, a master’s degree student in political science, and Rodriguez, a second-year SIU School of Law student, will go against almost 400 debate teams from 243 universities and 50 countries on the campus of Assumption University, Dec. 27 through Jan 3.
“It’s very much about learning as much as we can, and representing SIU as best as we can,” said Locher, who is from Springfield, Illinois.
Continuing a proud SIU tradition
Southern Illinois University has a long history of success in competitive debate. Saluki teams were ranked in the top two in the country at some point in every season between 2008-2015 under Todd Graham, director of debate in the communication studies department.
SIU will compete for the sixth time in the last 12 years at the world championships.
Teams will participate under a British Parliamentary format, where it is a two team vs. two-team format and teammates can exchange roles. Team members must be able to debate both sides of the argument, whether they agree with their case or not. Presentations last about six minutes per side. Teams get about 15 minutes to prepare once they learn the topic.
“Broad-based knowledge is really important,” Locher said.
Sandy Pensoneau-Conway, associate professor and interim chair in communication studies, said the events and competitions like this provide a unique experience for students.
“We’re really proud that we can offer an experience like this to students, and who better to have as a coach than Dr. Graham,” she said. “They’re getting a top-notch coaching experience from a championship debate coach, and they get this once-in-a-lifetime experience in a global setting. This is both a personal experience they’ll never forget, and a real advantage that can help them professionally.”
Knowledge is power for diverse SIU students
Locher, who also received his undergraduate degree in political science at SIU, said he believes the duo’s strengths will serve them well.
In tryouts about a month ago, Graham opted to do 1-on-1 debate format with potential team members and discovered Rodriguez and Locher each have a wide range of knowledge. The topics could range from the status of President Donald Trump’s impeachment to worldwide democracy. Graham adds there will certainly be some sort of question related to the host country, so team members have read a lot on Thailand in addition to their typical studies.
Both debaters estimate that study sessions last about three hours — even around their final exams — to gear up for the competition. Rodriguez, who hails from Chicago, said she was excited to have a chance to renew her long-expired passport.
Pensoneau-Conway noted that the activity is great for students in Locher and Rodriguez’s chosen interests, political science and law, because they rely on their knowledge and get coaching on elements that include effective debate methods, producing sound arguments, and “in-the-moment synthesis and recall.”
“They have to be very well rounded in order to be successful, and I know that Dr. Graham has worked hard with them this semester to get them there,” she said.
Beyond the competition, there will be some time for sightseeing. Graham said he is excited to have the debaters sharing meals and conversations with other students from a variety of nationalities as a way to learn about the world away from newscasts and podcasts.
“We’ve learned more from this singular competition than any other debating event we’ve attended,” Graham said. “It’s an experience the SIU debate team treasures. Plus, it is one of the few times SIU gets to compete against the best debate universities in the world like Oxford, The London School of Economics and Harvard.
The team will leave Dec. 27 for Bangkok, Thailand, and return Jan. 4.