MACON – Jaz Buckley, a Mercer University freshman from Columbus, made history at the National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) tournament March 14-17 in Kansas City, Kansas. Buckley became the first freshman and the first African-American to be named top speaker at the nation's largest parliamentary debate tournament.
Buckley, who is majoring in both political science and French with aspirations to be a lawyer, outranked 320 other debaters representing top programs such as the University of California, Berkeley, Wheaton, Rice and Whitman to receive the James "Al" Johnson Top Speaker Award.
NPDA is the largest intercollegiate organization for debate of any kind in the U.S.
A freshman with only two years of experience in organized debate, Buckley has competed in the novice division at most of the team's competitions this season. However, at nationals, there is not a separate novice division. Despite all debaters competing against one another, novice awards are still presented under the assumption that the top novice will not also receive the top speaker award. Buckley won both for the first time ever.
"This experience makes me want to continue to be involved with debate and opening the space to other individuals," said Buckley. "Debate can grow; it is a progressive and inclusive activity."
Parliamentary debate features two teams of two students debating one another on relevant topics of international interest, such as war crimes, biofuels and student loan debt. One team, called the "government," affirms a given resolution, while the other team, called the "opposition," refutes it. The four speakers alternate in presenting their arguments, which are based on their existing knowledge as well as 20 to 30 minutes of research done just prior to the debate.
Buckley's teammate Kyle Bligen, also a freshman, was rated the fourth-best speaker and second-best novice. The team of Buckley and Bligen, a politics, philosophy and economics major from Long Island, New York, finished in the top 16, as did Mercer's other team of seniors Lindsey Hancock, an English major from Thompson's Station, Tennessee, and Hunter Pilkinton, a political science and communication studies major from Tifton. Hancock was rated the 10th-best speaker.
"When we would travel to national debate competitions in the past, other teams did not always know who Mercer was," said Dr. Vasile Stănescu, director of debate and visiting assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Theatre Arts. "Now, because of these exceptional debaters, they do."
The incoming president of NPDA, Dr. Michael Middleton, said that debate at Mercer is "both exceptionally rigorous and challenges us to think differently and harder than what we traditionally see."Hancock and Pilkinton also competed at the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence (NPTE) March 20-23 at William Jewell College in Missouri. The duo from Mercer was the first team from the University and the state of Georgia to qualify for NPTE, the most prestigious parliamentary debate tournament in the nation. They finished with four wins and four losses in the 64-team field.
Senior Caleb Maier, a psychology and philosophy major from Alpharetta, and junior Gabriel Ramirez, an environmental engineering major from Warner Robins, as well as assistant coach Erica Eaton, a former Mercer debater, have also contributed to what has been the most successful season in the history of the University's debate team.
"Mercer has a long tradition of excellence in debate," said Dr. Lake Lambert, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. "Even though I'm an academic dean, I like to win, and our debate team doesn't disappoint."
"Debate is an academic activity. It entirely depends on the knowledge of the students," added Dr. Stănescu. "These achievements are a reflection of the academic excellence that Mercer always exhibits. My hope is that these victories highlight that debate at Mercer represents a space where everyone can succeed."