Peaslee members Miriam Pierson ’18 and Nate Urban ’18 made debate history last week.
Together, they won Team of the Year, and Pierson took home the Speaker of the Year award.
These awards are given out annually to the top-ranked college debate team and debater, respectively, within the American Parliamentary Debate Association. Pierson and Urban are the first debaters from a liberal arts college to take home the Team of the Year award since 1997. Pierson is the fourth woman ever to win the Speaker of the Year award since its inception in 1984.
Pierson and Urban clinched both of their awards on April 7, at a tournament at Princeton University where they placed third overall.
“It didn’t hit us right in the moment,” Urban said.
Teams advance in the rankings by placing in tournaments. Speakers climb in rank by earning speaker points, which are awarded to individual team members at tournaments. By the time Pierson and Urban traveled to Princeton, it was clear that they would emerge the top-ranked team in the league. The winner of Speaker of the Year was decidedly less obvious.
“That was a very intense, down-to-the-wire type thing,” Pierson said. “There were three kids behind me who were in the running to pass me.”
Only once Pierson was named the top speaker at the Princeton tournament did she realize that she had won Speaker of the Year.
“I was very relieved. It’s really exciting,” she said.
Pierson has been debating for eight years. She originally joined debate in high school as a way to confront her fear of public speaking.
“Some of the most important things I got from debate have nothing to do with competitive success,” Pierson said. “It was really important for me to learn how to speak in front of an audience. I was that person who would not talk in class. I would get nervous when I had to raise my hand. I think it’s been really helpful for that.”
Pierson’s debate career at the college has been historic. In her first year at Swarthmore, she won the Novice of the Year award, which is awarded to the top new debater in the league. Last year, paired with Will Meyer ’17, Pierson won the A.P.D.A. National Championship and was ranked the 11th speaker overall. Urban, who started debating his sophomore year at Swarthmore, finished 16th in the speaker rankings this year.
“In the lore of the debate world, where all these people who debated like 20 years ago get on Facebook and talk about the all-time greats, Miriam is firmly in that discussion,” Urban said. “So from my perspective it has been cool to watch her set a lot of goals and reach them.”
According to Pierson and Urban, this level of success is unusual for a debate team from a small college. A.P.D.A. is often dominated by Ivy League teams, particularly those from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. In the past 10 years, debaters from these schools have won Team of the Year eight times and Speaker of the Year four times.
“It’s a number of things,” Pierson said of the Ivies’ consistent success. “[Ivy League schools] really heavily recruit the top high school debaters. Neither Nate nor I were top high-school debaters. We both really got much more serious about the activity in college. Nate hadn’t even debated before in his life.”
Pierson also feels that small schools are at a disadvantage when it comes to resources. Though Peaslee is funded by an endowment left by its namesake alum, the team still does not have access to the extensive network of past cases and coaches that Ivies do.
Despite its material limitations, Pierson and Urban feel that Swarthmore’s unique ethos has also propelled Peaslee toward success.
“I think Swarthmore particularly, as a school, really looks for people who are into this type of discussion and debate as an activity: very academic people,” Pierson said.
They also attribute Peaslee’s success to its inclusive environment.
“Debate teams can get super competitive. I’ve seen teams that have a bad environment where it’s like if someone’s doing well, someone else is really angry at them. It’s just really not been like that on our team, which is super positive,” Pierson said.
However, Pierson notes that within the wider sphere of college debate, women and people of color in particular have often felt excluded. As a successful female debater, Pierson has frequently experienced both overt and coded sexism from fellow debaters.
“When I first got onto the league, there weren’t a lot of women debaters who were doing well…” she said. “There were people who would say things like, ‘Maybe women are less persuasive inherently because their voices aren’t deep enough.’ Someone said something to me about how ‘male voices resonate in your soul, and you can really feel the arguments.’”
However, Pierson feels that debate has recently become somewhat more welcoming. In 2017, Jerusalem Demsas, then a senior at the College of William & Mary, became the first black woman to win Speaker of the Year. 2018 also marks the first time Speaker of the Year has been awarded to women in consecutive years.
“I think it’s really nice to see the league and just debate, in general, becoming a lot more inclusive of women and also for people of color too,” Pierson said. “I think that’s a really positive thing.”
Peaslee president Annie Abruzzo ’20 feels that Pierson has been a positive inspiration for younger female debaters at Swarthmore.
“I think this kind of success is really good for recruitment,” Abruzzo said. “Not only for recruitment in general, but also recruitment of women onto the team. Debate is something that has often been de facto super male, so to have … someone you can learn from, who is that successful and also happens to be a woman, is really great.”
Pierson and Urban are seniors, so the Princeton tournament was their final time competing in college debate. Though Peaslee will no longer have Pierson and Urban on the team, their influence will still be felt.
“For the team next year, I think there’s definitely big shoes to fill,” Abruzzo said. “I think most debaters can’t aim for that. [However, Pierson and Urban] have tons of cases they’ve written that we’ve been able to learn from. They’ve been able to teach us or help us write our own cases.”
Pierson and Urban plan to continue to be involved with debate at the college next year, if their work schedules permit.
“One of the cool things about the debate league is that a lot of the judges are recent alumni,” Urban said. “We will still be involved to some extent. I think there’s a pretty good chance one of us coaches the Swarthmore team to some degree.”
Looking forward, Pierson and Urban are confident that the Swarthmore team will continue to be successful next year.
“It’s … a really great group of people,” Pierson said. “They’re very close friends with each other. They’re all pretty nice and supportive … And I think they’re going to be really good.”