The Fresno State debate team exceeded expectations once again and placed in the top 16 at the 68th National Debate Tournament at Indiana University – despite a limited budget and minimal resources.
The Barking Bulldogs partnership of graduating seniors Sierra Holley and Candis Tate triumphed at the tournament held from March 27-31. Beating the University of Kansas in the round of 32, the duo then lost to top-seeded University of Oklahoma.
Reflecting on their placing at the tournament, both Holley and Tate said the performance shows Fresno State’s capability to reach new heights.
“This was never expected. No one expected us to do that. Nobody expected us to be in the top 16,” said Tate, a double major in communications and Africana studies. “It’s always good to break down barriers that people think we’re not able to do.”
During the preliminary rounds, Holley and Tate also defeated host Indiana University, Dartmouth College, Liberty University, Rutgers University and the University of Iowa.
This is Fresno State’s first year qualifying for the National Debate Tournament (NDT). Debate director Deven Cooper said the result reflected the “growth” of the program that was revived in 2011 after being pulled for budgetary reasons in 2003.
After reaching a record No. 11 national ranking earlier this semester, the team now sits No. 18 and has retained its No. 1 position in the district comprising California, Arizona and Nevada schools. Fresno State was the only university from the district to advance into the round of 32 – ahead of Stanford, UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California.
Cooper said such an “unheard of” result is a testament to the combination of coaching and student dedication, a view shared by the chair of the communications department, Dr. Douglas Fraleigh.
Fraleigh said the coaching since 2011 is responsible for the growing program, both under Dr. Kevin Kuwas who laid the foundation from 2011-2013 and now Cooper who was appointed in the fall.
With the coaching staff, Fraleigh said the “debaters have really taken the ball and run with it.”
In addition to the team of Holley and Tate, Fraleigh also mentioned his pride in the entire Barking Bulldog team, highlighting the team of Nadia Lewis and Jamila Ahmed. Lewis and Ahmed made college debate history in a University of Kentucky tournament, becoming the first two African-American speakers to place first and second, let alone come from the same university.
“I’ve been saying this for 24 years that our students are absolutely capable of competing with the best universities in the nation, and that all we need is the coaching and the resources to put them somewhat on par with the others,” Fraleigh said. “When we’re given that, our students can achieve just about anything.”
Despite their achievements, Holley and Tate expressed concern about the amount of funding they receive as a university program.
“I think it shows if Fresno State really put the money and the resources into the debate team, that we could be able to even reach higher heights,” Tate said. “This year we did it – but we did it with a very limited budget.”
The duo said while its efforts have been rewarded with trophies, its progression has been one of sacrifice.
“We’ve had a lot of loss of sleep and loss of funds,” said Holley, a double major in political science and Africana studies. “It was really hard and difficult, but all you see is the trophy.”
In Tate’s opinion, trophies are unable to convey the real work and effort done behind the scenes, something she said she hopes administration will further recognize in the future.
“There’s so much that goes into it that I don’t think people understand, or even care to understand,” Tate said. “All they care is that we bring home trophies.”
With 16 recruits potentially coming next fall, Tate said increased funding could help the debate team rise even further.
“I really hope the administration supports them further than just [university president Joseph Castro] mentioning us in his speeches, but actually doing what needs to be done to support us,” she said.
Cooper said while the administration did help with “last-minute switching of funds” during the semester, a “stable budget” would help significantly. Cooper said their latest trip to Indiana, which involved four teams competing across two tournaments, cost $12,000.
“But at least we were successful at those tournaments,” Cooper said. “So that shows the money is not just being squandered.”
With funding being the biggest “impediment” during the debate team’s season, Cooper said he hopes its successful year will be a “justification” for increased resources.
He said in comparison with other universities in its district that spend “triple the amount,” Fresno State can replicate the success next year with appropriate funding.
Next year’s team will likely grow to 18 students – a significant increase from this year’s team of seven.
“Before, Fresno was nothing, and now it would be embarrassing, I would say, if Fresno State was not to qualify for NDT next year just because they weren’t given the necessary resources that they need,” Holley said.
“When you say NDT, it’s not just saying who is the best. It’s also saying who has the funds,” Tate said. “Because those two go hand-in-hand.”
Partners for the past two years, Holley said she and Tate were able to relate as black women and focus their arguments on “breaking various systems of oppression,” such as race and feminism.
Both Africana studies majors, Tate said they often sat down with professors from the department to perfect their arguments. She said the critical-thinking skills the team acquired about systems of oppression meant it had an advantage over its opponents.
“We were winning rounds, so in order to compete against us they had to know what our arguments were and have to research our arguments and our areas,” Holley said. “So it’s a new form of education toward everyone, too.”
Now with the “indescribable” experience of NDTs behind them, the duo is finally taking the opportunity to be “normal for a minute.”
“It’s a lot of pressure. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of late nights,” Tate said. “Just being a regular student for a while feels good. And being able to say I went, I gave it my all, and now I’m here.”