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Diverse viewpoints, solid work ethic put UAA debaters among nation's elite, coach says

In the world of collegiate debate, Harvard, Yale and the University of Alaska Anchorage are peers. Anchorage's hometown debate team perennially ranks among the elite.

From Saturday to Monday evening, UAA hosted the 2015 U.S. Universities Debating Championship on its campus and at the Hotel Captain Cook in downtown Anchorage. It was the first time the premier national college debate tournament has been held in Alaska. The field included teams from such prestigious universities as Stanford, Brown and Cornell.

"(At other tournaments) we'd come back with trophies and press releases," said Steve Johnson, who has coached debate at UAA for 20 years. "But nobody was seeing what we did."

So how did the Seawolf Debate Team become a national powerhouse?

The university has a long tradition of fielding standout debate teams, at first competing among community colleges.

"They were dominant in that circuit," Johnson said.

In the 1990s, the team shifted to the national collegiate circuit. In 2002, Seawolf Debate won the national championship, and it repeated the feat in 2005. Debaters on the team have also ranked in international competitions.

The team, which any student can join, has a core of 25 members. About 15 travel to tournaments. Most are homegrown Alaska kids, with the majority coming from public schools in the Anchorage area, said Johnson.

"Our secret has always been our work ethic," says Johnson.

To prepare to debate the pros and cons of prompts like "Developed nations should never impose economic sanctions on developing nations" and "Parents have a moral duty to adopt rather than have their own biological children," debaters must polish their rhetorical skills and amass a vast store of sources to fortify their arguments.

Team members are expected to read widely, said debate partners Matthieu Ostrander and Jonathon Taylor of UAA, who made it to the quarterfinals in Monday's competition before being eliminated. Regular reading materials include The New York Times, The Economist (which they say is the "bible of debate"), Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy and academic journals.

Briefs on international affairs and other current events topics go into a four-ring binder called a "brief book."

Then, they practice. Three-hour practices are the norm.

"We drill and we drill, we practice and we practice," Johnson said.

Another secret to UAA's success, Johnson thinks, is a diversity of political viewpoints.

"We get a really nice balance of students who tend to lead toward the conservative or toward the liberal," Johnson said. "That's part of what makes us pretty competitive too."

Team outreach to prospective debaters helps, Ostrander and Taylor say. By running tournaments at the middle and high school levels in Anchorage, the team can identify future debate superstars. Some end up attending the program.

Former UAA debaters have gone on to be political staffers, doctors and, in one case, CEO of a Native corporation. And "lots and lots of attorneys," according to Johnson.

Taylor graduated from Family Partnership Charter School in Anchorage before attending UAA and joining the debate team. Ostrander went to high school in Hawaii. Both seniors, they say they are considering future paths that include graduate school for public policy or international affairs.

Debate, as a discipline, is more useful to the development of critical thinking than ever, their coach believes.

"It's training for being a good citizen," Johnson said.

And it's a rare opportunity to deeply consider something divorced from omnipresent digital distractions.

"It's just you, your brain and your mouth up there," he said.

The final results of the 2015 U.S. Universities Debating Championship were released Tuesday:

Champions: Tony Nguyen & Edwin Zhang, Yale

Finalists: Bo Seo & Fanele Mashwama, Harvard; Emanuel Waddell & Rodje Malcolm, Morehouse; Tiffany Keung & Alex Mechanik, Brown

Top Speaker: Matt Summers, Bates

Top Novice Team: Alex Klein & Rubin Danberg-Biggs, Cornell

Top Novice Speaker: Harry Elliott, Stanford

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