February 27, 2024

Women in Debate: a family and a team

Four champion debaters discuss what led them to joining the debate team, their experiences and what makes their team unique.

“Lose Yourself” by Eminem blasts through the speakers as the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Debate Team pulls up to their latest competition. While this may seem like an odd choice of music to some, it’s considered the “hype song” for the team.

“A part of the song is that you only get one shot, one opportunity. That’s it,” Mickayla Stogsdill said. “All of us have been in final rounds, and all of us have felt that stress of ‘If I don’t win, this is a team championship that I’m losing.’”

“That song is telling you that even when you feel insurmountable pressure, it’s okay and you’re going to be okay because of the people around you,” Stogsdill said. “I don’t know if Eminem ever framed that song to be about a debate tournament for a debate team, but it really changed our team.”

“It’s also really nice to crank that song as you pull up at the tournament because everyone knows UT has arrived,” Symantha Gregorash said.

Stogsdill is the current president and coach of UT’s debate team and plans to work in the U.S. Senate post-graduation. In high school, she participated in her school’s mock trial team; but when she came to UT, she was ready to try something different. She wanted to feel a sense of community, but with an opportunity to challenge herself which is why she decided to join the debate team. Since joining the team, Stogsdill has won multiple national championships.

“This is not just a team, it’s a family,” Stogsdill said. “These people that you’re around are the people you travel many, many hours with, that you debate alongside and their wins are my wins and their losses are my losses.”

Stogsdill said the team is unique, especially compared to other teams across the country. The team is completely alumni-funded and student-run, meaning there are no fees to join the group and no try-outs.

“Those two things give an opportunity for every single student on this campus to have a challenge that they have probably never seen before,” Stogsdill said.

When Gregorash came to UT, she and a few friends decided to go to one of the Debate Team’s meetings. She was fascinated to see the team interact as a family and have discourse.

“Debating itself just looked so exciting with that aspect of being challenging, but also informative,” Gregorash said. “Once I saw that and really got to see how the team worked, and then I got to see my first debate I realized that that’s what I wanted to do.”

Gregorash is currently serving as Treasurer on the team. Since joining the team, she has won multiple championships, including a national championship.

Caroline Rogers is a senior Varsity debater and the current Vice President of the team. She is also the 2019 Tennessee Varsity State Champion. Like Stogsdill, she participated in her high school’s mock trial team and wanted something different in college.

Rogers emphasized the importance of understanding other perspectives on an issue when fighting for something one believes in.

“I think being forced to debate for something that you might not personally believe in has really taught me and other people on the team a really valuable life lesson,” Rogers said.

“It might look like we’re yelling at each other and going after each other kind of hardcore, but it actually really does open up your mind and teach you a lot,” Rogers said. “I think I’ve learned a lot from debate in my four years.”

Jessica Rice is a junior Varsity debater on the team and was the 2018 Novice National Champion. Rice values conversation and discourse and knew coming to college that the debate team is where she wanted to be.

When preparing for debates, Rice said keeping up-to-date with current events and having knowledge on a diverse range of topics is important to the debate process.

“As far as the actual debate goes, we get 30 minutes to prep each debate which surprises a lot of people,” Rogers said. “In other styles of debate, they have months to prep a specific case about maybe a specific policy or something like that, but we actually debate multiple different topics within each tournament.”

During the VOL Classic, a debate tournament held on campus a few weeks ago, there were 11 total rounds and the debaters had 30-minutes to prepare for each of the 11 topics. In any given debate, topics range from policy, social issues, business, philosophy, among others.

When two debaters are paired, they are given five topics and must narrow it down to one they are willing to debate. Once this is done, the two then use their 30-minutes to prepare their respective sides of the topic.

“If you feel like you’re not being heard, you should never raise your voice. You should only ever restructure your argument,” Rice said. “I think if we really embody that it will decrease a lot of people’s tentative nature to come to what it means to have conflict and what it means to debate.”

Gregorash emphasized the need to be confident at competitions, with an “I’m in it to win it” mindset.

“At the end of the day, your judges see if you’re not confident and that actually does win you or lose you rounds,” Gregorash said.

Debating teaches those participating lessons that are valuable outside of debating.

“Our mission is to develop skilled professionals into the community and into the world to have civil discourse, and to have better communication skills as a whole,” Stogsdill said.

If a student is interested in joining the debate team, the student can attend any meeting throughout the semester and be as committed as they want to be. The meetings are for two hours. The first hour is what the team considers “class time,” where the team works to educate themselves and guide each other. The second hour is when the team practices debating each other.

The meetings are held on Thursdays from 8-10 p.m. in HSS 206.


Edited by Maddie Torres 

Featured image courtesy of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Debate Team

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