SIU’s debate team is young, but legacy is old

By Anna Spoerre, @ASpoerre_DE

Four tournaments into the season, prospects show promising future for the university’s debate team, which is ranked 10th in the nation.

SIUC’s team has a history of winning, but this year has presented a challenge: The team has no returning members and is composed of two students.

“They have done shockingly well for a young team,” said Todd Graham, the team’s director.


Graham, SIUC’s debate coach since 2000, has led the team to five national titles, with three since 2013.

Now, he is working with two debaters new to the university.

Bobby Swetz, a freshman from Flossmoor studying economics, has debated competitively since his freshman year of high school.

“It’s been interesting being a first-year freshman debating seniors, but we’ve had a lot of success,” Swetz said.

Earlier this month, the team placed third at the Pat Kennedy Round Robin Tournament in California.

Arielle Stephenson, a junior from Torrance, Calif., studying business economics, debated in high school and community college before transferring to SIU this year.

Tournaments are broken into rounds in which the competitors have 20 minutes to research the topic they are given. Economics, history, policy and current events are among the topics.


To prepare for the debates, Stephenson said she and Swetz constantly read the news and do research.

“It’s like a mind game,” Stephenson said. “You’re always trying to be more strategic than your opponent.”

Stephenson recently won top speaker at a tournament in California.

“The pressure is higher, but it’s also a lot more fun,” she said of joining SIUC’s debate team.

Because there are only two members on the team, Stephenson said they have to work harder than schools with larger teams.

“I want to show people that you don’t have to be a senior to win nationals,” Stephenson said.

Ben Reid, a second year graduate student in communication studies from Kansas City, Mo., is the graduate assistant for the team.

He also helped coach the team that won nationals last year.

“Now we’re trying to do that with very smart, very hardworking debaters that lack that experience,” he said.

He said the team has not won a tournament yet, and had already won multiple tournaments at this time in previous years. However, Reid said the young debaters show promising results.

The team is finished for the semester and is preparing to travel abroad during winter break for the World Universities Debating Championship in Greece.

Reid said Graham likes to take the team to the World’s tournament every couple of years to expose the students to different ways of thinking about debate by giving them the opportunity to compete against other universities in other countries.

Swetz said the team’s main competition is the University of Texas, but he believes his team has a shot at keeping the national title.

 “I think [the team] is ready to give us all the tools we need to win,” he said.

Reid said he does not expect the team to win the national championship, but expects to be in the top five or 10 teams in the country if everyone is on their A-game.

Graham said the inexperience of the team is not going to get in the way.

“We’re still planning on having a great national championship,” he said. 

Anna Spoerre can be reached at [email protected] or @ASpoerre_DE