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Lauren Barney and Tanzil Chowdhury are members of the forensics team at Arizona State University, a diverse community of speech and debate enthusiasts who parley the power of parlance into competitive communication. They are also part of a small but driven class of students who chose to continue speech and debate competition at the college level after participating in ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication Invitational in their not-so-distant high school past.
“High school forensics is massive and getting more participants every year as evidenced by the scores of students we are seeing at this tournament in recent years,” said Adam Symonds, director of ASU Forensics. “This tournament is about offering an opportunity for anyone from any type of forensics event to be here and our goal is to offer one campus, one stop for high schools to bring all of their students to campus to compete in different events.”
Formerly known as the Southwest Championship, the Hugh Downs School invitational is the largest high school speech and debate tournament in Arizona. More than 125 schools from more than 20 states and two countries — the U.S. and Taiwan — are expected to participate in public speaking and debate events over three days, from Jan. 4 to 6.
Symonds says high school students who visit ASU’s Tempe campus to participate in the Invitational embrace the opportunity to see where they can potentially go to school and he’s hoping that the tournament will also entice more students to join ASU Forensics given the benefits speech and debate offers to students across all disciplines.
“It teaches clarification of personal values; how to conduct credible research; develop advocacies that are meaningful to you; and how to speak on your feet,” Symonds said. “Professionally, we see what folks really want out of their employees are people who can anticipate data, bring an argument to bear and defend it. Debate is really useful because it changes the way your brain works. It changes the way you think about things. You can make better comparative assessments.”
Now a sophomore in ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business, Barney joined ASU Forensics in her first semester at ASU after learning through high school speech and debate that she wasn’t as shy about speaking in public as she once thought she was.
“I have been able to transfer a lot of the skills that I had in high school, but I’ve also been able to learn so much more in college.” Barney said. “College debate has more freedom when it comes to researching what you want, and I really appreciate being able to strengthen the skills I learned in high school.”
Chowdhury said the ASU high school tournament was a perennial activity for his debate team in his teenage years and that being a part of ASU Forensics has been extremely rewarding and a welcome complement to his junior year studies in engineering and science.
“I get to read about so many different things like philosophy and politics that I wouldn’t get to read about otherwise. I get to engage with a great group of people, coaches and other members of our team. I get to travel across the country — it’s just been really fun.”
Video by Ken Fagan and Suzanne Wilson/ASU
Clark Olson, an instructor in the Hugh Downs School and the director of ASU Forensics from 1984 to 1999, said ASU has earned quite a reputation as a national leader in collegiate speech and debate tournaments in recent decades and has taken pride in former students who were motivated by skill and inspired by experiences in ASU Forensics to pursue their chosen career paths — TV writer and producer Anthony Zuiker among them.
“We had Tony Zuiker, who was the founder of ‘CSI,’” Olson said in reference to the forensics TV crime drama “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” “Because the term ‘forensics’ is always misinterpreted as being about dead bodies — when it actually means speaking for judgment — Tony decided to capitalize on forensics, using it in the modern way people think of the term, to create the TV series.”
Zuiker’s pal, actor, producer and “CSI” writer Dustin Abraham also shored up the ASU Forensics squad during his years at the university, according to Olson, along with a number of other former students who have gone on to successful careers in to politics, business, law and the performing arts.
ASU Forensics’ team started in 1885, the same year that ASU started as the Territorial Normal School. It is the oldest student organization at ASU and continues to welcome participation from undergraduates from any discipline enrolled at ASU.
“We have majors from engineering, business, English, social justice, communications, political science — you name it,” Symonds said. “The number one thing I encourage students to do is to find what motivates them — what makes them want to research and advocate — then we talk about how to make that competitive and make it a thing that people are really interested in and want to watch.”
Speech and debate fans can watch high school students — and perhaps some future ASU Forensics team members — tackle policy and prose during the 2019 Hugh Downs School of Human Communication Invitational on Jan. 4-6 at ASU's Tempe campus. Almost 2,000 students and judges participated in the 2018 event, and a similar attendance count is expected for the 2019 tournament. Final rounds will be held in large auditoriums throughout the day on Sunday, Jan. 6. Awards will be presented in the Student Pavilion Auditorium at 6 p.m. that day.
Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now