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Simply the Best: UH Policy Debate Team Wins National Competition

Jillian Holden

The novice team of the University of Houston Policy Debate program, housed in the Honors College, dominated a national debate tournament in September. Their skills in public speaking and critical analysis, and their application of politics, ethics and rhetoric, earned the team a 3-0 final victory and the top speaker award in the Novice Division at the tournament hosted by Northwestern University.  

“Our novices are already champions, and this is only the first tournament of many to come,” JV competitor Christine Le said. “COVID-19 severely reduced the number of debaters we had last year, but we have dozens of new faces this year with explosive amounts of potential.” 

Five years ago, the UH Policy Debate program was the 27th largest in the country; two years ago, it had advanced to being the fourth largest; and this year, UH Policy Debate was the largest debate team in the country, bringing 36 Cougars to virtually debate 286 students selected from 41 schools. Speech Debate

“Everyone is allowed to join. You don’t need a lick of experience, and the skills you get out of policy is transferrable to any field,” JV debater Kiran Khan said. “I don’t think there is another program like debate that has the same effects.”

Due to a family emergency, Speech and Debate Director Richard Garner was unable to attend the tournament. Varsity debater Austin Koort filled in admirably for him, serving as coach for the novice team. 

As members of the UH novice team, Jenna Goodrich (top speaker winner), Nine Abad and Kayla Fries (tournament winners) relied on each other for mutual support and confidence. Repeating Glass’ mantra of “Even if you don’t have faith in yourself, have faith in me, who has faith in you,” they took a deep breath, shook their hands out and gave it their all.

“When the judges turned back on their screens, and we heard it was a ‘sweep for the Houston teams,’ we were so excited,” Nine Abad said. “Obviously, policy debate is a lot of work, and knowing that all of our work translated into a win for us was very satisfactory.” 

Centered on competitive success, campus engagement and community building, policy debate engages the community in pressing policy issues through partnerships with high school debate programs such as the Houston Urban Debate League and the annual public debate series. 

“I am constantly blown away by the dedication and ability of these students and their ability to grow both academically and competitively even in trying times,” Speech and Debate Assistant Director Rob Glass said. “They never cease to amaze me, and I'm so grateful for the work that they do.”

Future collaborations with the University of Houston Law Center, the Phronêsis Program in Politics and Ethics, the Medicine & Society program and the Leadership Studies initiative will provide further opportunities for development as students continue to gather interest. 

“If you want an intellectual challenge and want to expand the educational skill set that you will need for your college, workplace, etc., policy is the best place to hone in on those skills,” Abad stated. “You will be doing the research, making analytical connections and making analytical jumps that find patterns that are useful for anything in life.”