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National awards are the latest recognition for Sac State’s successful Debate Team

Members of the Hornet Debate Team were among the finalists at the National Forensics Association tournament in April. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

When Tony Escalante was on the debate team at San Joaquin Delta College and participating in competitions, Jared Anderson many times was one at the judging table.

When it came time to transfer to a four-year university, Anderson, Sac State’s Debate Team coach, convinced Escalante to become a Hornet.

“I’m grateful (to) Sac State for providing the Debate Team, for supporting it,” said Escalante, a spring 2023 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. “Ninety percent of the reason I came to Sac State was for the Debate Team.”

Escalante is one of dozens of Sac State students who cultivated critical skills such as public speaking and research while winning awards at local, state, and national competitions.

“Confidence is something that people are drawn to and can help someone excel. I think I can speak in front of anyone and feel confident in what I am saying.” -- Tatiana Trujillo, Communication Studies major

The team regularly punches above its weight, going toe-to-toe, and even beating teams from universities with far more resources.

Most recently, Sac State junior Tatiana Trujillo made it to the final round of Extemporaneous Speaking at the National Forensics Association (NFA) National Tournament in Peoria, Illinois, in April. Two of her fellow students reached the semifinals in Debate.

The performance continued the team’s string of successes since it joined the NFA in 2014. In each of the first two years of membership, five students qualified for the national championship. Sac State participants regularly reach the later rounds, and the team finished 10th overall in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

The egalitarian nature of debate is a primary reason Sac State can hold its own against better-resourced teams, said Anderson, who is also a Communication Studies lecturer.

“If I wanted to go try out for the men’s basketball team, there’s no amount of, ‘just work harder’ that I'm going to be able to do, because those kids are just faster, stronger, taller, more athletic,” he said. “In debate, if you want to get better, you can just get better. Read more, do the research, put in the work, listen more, practice more, and you get better. It returns on your effort more than any activity that I know of.”

Historically, the team has had between 25 and 30 members at any given time, though the pandemic and online learning put a dent in that number. Not all students travel to every competition; five attended this year’s nationals.

Though the primary focus – and team name’s origin – is debate, recently some team members have participated in individual speaking events.

The team is connected to a three-unit course called Debate Research Practicum, which meets twice weekly for lectures, class activities, discussion, debate practice, and guest speakers. The course is open to all majors and can be taken a maximum of four times.

Students are not pressured or required to compete and travel, and enrollment in the course is encouraged but not required for debate team participation.

During the 2022-23 academic year, the team traveled to competitions in Stockton, Reno, the Bay Area, St. Louis, and Pennsylvania. Sac State also hosts a spring tournament every year. Student fees and fundraising finance the students’ travel.

Anderson has been Sac State’s Debate Team coach since 2013. He previously coached in the Los Rios Community College District, where he started competing as a student before transferring to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

A Sacramento native, Anderson said, “The opportunity to coach at Sac State was a big deal,” as is “the institutional support for the Debate Team.” Coaching at a university also affords him the opportunity to work with some students for four years.

Beyond camaraderie, Anderson said, students gain valuable skills through their participation on the Debate Team, including critical thinking, research, and presentation skills. Those aspects are beneficial in their other classes as well as their careers.

“The No. 1 skill(s) that employers are looking for are oral communication skills,” he said. “It’s literally what we specialize in.”

Trujillo, a Communication Studies major, joined the team in spring 2023, her first semester at Sac State. She said she initially felt nervous, but Anderson’s coaching and her teammates’ support helped her succeed.

In her first-ever debate tournament last fall, Trujillo made the quarterfinals and qualified for NFA nationals.

“One of the things I’m most grateful for learning is being able to have confidence, even through feeling terrified,” Trujillo said. “Confidence is something that people are drawn to and can help someone excel. I think I can speak in front of anyone and feel confident in what I am saying.”

For Escalante, the biggest benefit has been his improved research skills. He said one professor determined immediately that Escalante was on the Debate Team because of his ability to research and explain an issue.

“The ability for debaters to pretty much ingest knowledge and then put it into a way that makes logical sense is just better,” he said. “It helps a lot when it comes to, for example, writing essays.”

The just-completed academic year was the most successful of Escalante’s debate career, which saw him win three tournaments and finish a close second in several others. However, he said the best moment of the season came during the first tournament of the spring, when several of Sac State’s first-time debaters – called “novices” – were announced as among those who would advance to the later rounds.

It’s those moments, he said, that illustrate the broader value of being on the Debate Team.

“Even if you don't feel like you’re going to be the best debater ever, it’s also great camaraderie," Escalante said. "It’s an amazing experience, and it will help you be a better student and a better speaker overall."

Sac State's Debate Team students learn critical skills such as public speaking and research while winning awards at local, state, and national competitions. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price) 


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About Jonathan Morales

Jonathan Morales joined the Sac State communications team in 2017 as a writer and editor. He previously worked at San Francisco State University and as a newspaper reporter and editor. He enjoys local beer, Bay Area sports teams, and spending time outdoors with his family and dog.

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