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2015 WCSU debaters prove double trouble for tournament competition

DANBURY, CONN. — Twin sisters Colleen and Nicole Mair entered Western Connecticut State University in 2012 with distinctly different tastes for competition, but this year their paths have converged on the field of ideas and intercollegiate debate — with immediate success that exemplifies the strong tradition they have inherited in the WCSU Roger Sherman Debate Society.

The Mairs, of Milford, parted ways as Nicole entered the Western rugby program while Colleen joined the debate society during their freshman year. But Nicole heard about Colleen’s rising fortunes as a sophomore debater and volunteered for the support staff at the Hat City Debate Tournament at Western in February 2014. In the corridors while a round was in progress, she recalled, a participant in the tournament approached her with surprise and, mistaking her for Colleen, asked, “Why aren’t you in there debating?”

That serendipitous invitation has been embraced by Nicole as she underwent a summer program of intensive training in argumentation fundamentals at the Arizona Debate Institute held at Arizona State University in Tempe, preparing her to team up with Colleen in debate competitions for the 2014-15 academic year. They entered their first competition as a junior varsity team at the Rutgers Newark Debate Tournament in late September, emerging from the qualifying round to achieve impressive victories in the quarterfinals and semifinals — the latter over the top-seeded team from Liberty University — before falling in the finals. Colleen achieved an impressive third place in the Rutgers Debate Speaker Awards, with Nicole placing ninth. “That was an unheard-of achievement for their very first tournament together,” said Renan Max Hamoy, WCSU debate director and Information Technology and Innovation Web content specialist.

During the WCSU debate society’s cross-country winter break trip to California in early January to participate in two debate tournaments, the Mair twins again reached the finals and achieved another second-place showing in junior varsity team competition in the Kathryn Klassic at California State University at Fullerton. Their individual placements in the tournament were even more impressive: Colleen captured the overall Top Speaker prize in the JV field, while Nicole finished close behind in third place.

Western will renew its claim as a premier destination for intercollegiate debate competition as host to the annual Hat City Debate Tournament, which will take place on Saturday, Feb. 21, and Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015, on the university’s Midtown campus, 181 White St. in Danbury. The 2015 tournament is expected to attract up to 400 participants from some 20 colleges and universities in the Eastern United States for regional competitions to qualify for the Cross Examination Debate Association Championship and the National Debate Tournament, as well as a regional event in the Parliamentary/Worlds debate format. Representing WCSU will be the Mair sisters; Stephon Adams and Devonte Escoffery, both of Brooklyn, New York; Claire Boettcher, of Middlebury; Sydney Feeney, of New Haven; Michael Hajzer, of Sandy Hook; Ceejay Joseph, of Stratford; Tashika Milford, of West Haven; and Dimitris Sfakios, of Willimantic.

All teams will engage on Saturday in several rounds of debate beginning at 8 a.m. and continuing until 10 p.m. Teams placing highest in scoring will qualify for the final elimination round on Sunday, beginning at 8 a.m. The public is invited to attend and admission will be free; information on debate locations will be available at the tournament registration site on the first floor of Warner Hall.

Success has been a familiar outcome for Roger Sherman Debate Society members who have faced off during the past decade against students from major colleges across the Eastern seaboard and nationwide. During the current 2014-15 year, the team of Adams and Escoffery achieved strong showings in the Harvard Debate Tournament in October and the Franklin Shirley Classic in November. Feeney and Sfakios teamed up to reach the semi-finals of the Cal State Fullerton tournament; Feeney also captured the Top Speaker prize in the novice division, with Boettcher placing second. Other strong results were posted last fall by Sfakios and Boettcher at the Rutgers Newark tournament, and by Sfakios and Feeney at the West Point Debate Tournament.

The Mair sisters, now in their junior year, have arrived at their passion for debate from different academic backgrounds and career interests. Colleen, who double majors in justice and law administration and psychology, was persuaded by a cousin who debated at Northwestern University that participating in intercollegiate debate offers an opportunity to develop presentation skills that will prove invaluable to her pursuit of a career in law or public policy. Nicole, a major in economics, finds that the rigorous requirements of researching complex subjects and drafting policy positions have motivated her to explore economic issues more deeply, leading her to consider a future career in the nonprofit sector focusing on the alleviation of poverty and social inequity.

Both Colleen and Nicole relish the challenge of rapidly formulating counterarguments under pressure and delving into the social and historical context of their debate topics to discover fresh perspectives on contemporary issues.

In preparing to debate the pros and cons of legalizing prostitution, one of the social issues addressed in the CEDA debate question for 2014-15, Nicole observed that the team’s argument “focused on the implications that legalizing or criminalizing prostitution has for specific individuals, and on the roots of prostitution in the history of slavery and the treatment of people as commodities.” Colleen noted that “lasting solutions to problems like this will come only when you consider how different people are affected by law and policy changes.”

The Mair sisters have found that their participation in the WCSU Honors Program, which promotes an interdisciplinary approach to academic inquiry, provides an excellent foundation for tackling a debate topic from many angles. “The format of the Honors Program is very valuable because it gives us the framework to learn from many disciplines,” Colleen said. In Nicole’s view, “many of the subjects we discuss in debate are very relevant to the classes I am taking,” she said, “and much of my class work is relevant to understanding how everything is connected.”

Hamoy, a 2012 WCSU alumnus who served as president and captain of the Roger Sherman Debate Society during his undergraduate studies, said that students who engage in intercollegiate debate gain “the ability to understand and respond to other people’s arguments and perspectives. You work very hard in preparing your own position, but when you enter the tournament you know it’s going to be ripped apart. You have to be able to think quickly on your feet to work out your argument and find a way to make it stand up. When you go through that experience, you are much better prepared to succeed in the world out there.”

WCSU graduate and debate society alumnus Ben Allen supports Hamoy as assistant debate coach and coordinator for weekly practice sessions, and other society alumni including Taylor Pasquence and Taylor Wolf also remain in contact to advise current team members.

“I don’t think you ever really leave,” Colleen Mair said. “Debate at Western brings together a great community of people who just want the program and the students to succeed. The debate society here is strongly supported by the Macricostas School of Arts and Sciences and the entire university.”

In recent years, the Roger Sherman Debate Society also has become a catalyst for organizing open student forums at Western to exchange views on contemporary issues including sexual norms, taboos and stereotypes in American society, and the impact of gender socialization on the prevalence of violent behavior. During these events sponsored by WCSU Housing and Residence Life, “we ask questions to get lots of feedback and make the programs very interactive, to educate students about subjects they may not have considered in this way before,” Nicole Mair said. Through poetry, dance and music as well as through dialogue, these public forums sponsored by the society invite students to express themselves freely “so long as we remain respectful of each other,” she added.


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