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Peaslee debaters win Speaker of the Year and Team of the Year

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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.”

Peaslee members Miriam Pierson and Will Meyer win APDA National Championships

in Around Campus/News by

Last weekend, Miriam Pierson ’18 and Will Meyer ’17 won the American Parliamentary Debate Association National Championships at Rutgers University. This marks the first time both a female and liberal arts college have won nationals in nearly twenty years. The debate society brought two other teams to the tournament consisting of nearly 100 teams.

Pierson and Meyer debated a case on epistemology against the Yale Debate Association in the final round.

“Miriam and I tend to be stronger on topics like Politics and International Relations, so we were a bit nervous when they announced the topic. But it ended up being one of the best round I’ve ever been a part of and we pulled it off. To go out like that, it was like something out of a dream,” said Meyer.  said.

After eight years of debating, this is the last tournament that Meyer will compete in.

“While I’ve had success before I’ve never achieved anything like this. It’s amazingly gratifying to end my debate career by winning the National Championships. It was made all the more special to do it with Miriam, who is an phenomenal debater and one of my best friends at Swarthmore,” he continued. “I literally fell out of my chair. I was that excited.”

Pierson noted that the win was a team effort.

“It was a great reward after everyone on our team had put so much into preparing for the tournament. One of the main reasons we’ve been uniquely successful despite being a small school is that we’ve always had a very close-knit community including a lot of alums who work to support us,” added Pierson.

Meyer has had eight years of competitive debate experience before winning. As for Pierson, she began debating her freshman year of high school as a way to improve her public speaking skills and get rid of her performance anxiety.

“I used to have bad performance anxiety; for example, I was always unable to remember the notes to pieces I had practiced a thousand times at piano recitals because I was too nervous. Debate wasn’t always an activity that was easy for me, but doing debate has taken me out of my comfort zone and made me more confident in myself,” she shared.

Pierson and Meyer further reflected on their time debating in Peaslee.

“Peaslee has been the defining part of my Swarthmore experience. I’m so grateful for all that the resources and opportunities the team has provided for me. I’ve gotten to travel all across the country and around the world doing what I love, and you can’t beat that. Most importantly, I’ve made so many great friends on this team. Being able to share our victory with them this weekend and bring a National Championship back to Swarthmore after 20 years was really a dream come true.” said Meyer.

Pierson remarked on how debate has improved her real-world skills.

“I’ve learned almost as much from doing debate as I have from all of my classes. Debating teaches you to think on your feet, challenge other people’s ideas, and express yourself clearly. But one of the main advantages is that debate forces you to think about questions outside of your major or minor,” echoed Pierson. “It’s also introduced me to some incredibly smart people from around the country who I know will be lifelong friends.”

This win marks the end of Peaslee’s debate season, and both Pierson and Meyer hope to see the Peaslee Debate Society excel into the future.

Debate team brings home hardware from nationals

in Around Campus/News/Uncategorized by

The Peaslee Debate Society completed one of its most successful seasons in recent history with impressive results at the American Parliamentary Debate Association Nationals. The tournament, which was held at the College of New Jersey on April 17-19, saw 85 varsity pairs and 47 novice pairs compete for team and individual titles. Swarthmore’s B team, consisting of Patrick Holland ’17 and Miriam Pierson ’18, made an underdog run to the octofinals, earning 12th place. Pierson’s success earned her the tournament’s top Novice Speaker award, and she clinched the national Novice of the Year award as a result.

Pierson became the first woman to win the prestigious award since a Brandeis woman earned the title in 2005. She is the second Peaslee member to be named Novice of the Year, after Andrew Waks ’13 accomplished it in 2012. In winning the top Novice Speaker position at nationals, Pierson finished ahead of seven male competitors, with the next-highest woman slotting in ninth place. Not only was she named the top novice, but she also was selected as the seventh-best debater in the entire nationals tournament. The six opponents she was placed behind hailed from Yale, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins.

Pierson’s team result with Holland was particularly strong, as well. The pair had to complete six rounds of debates across the first two days of competition in order to qualify for the round of sixteen. At the Franklin & Marshall tournament, Holland and Pierson reached the quarterfinals and finished eighth out of 26 pairs.

While nationals marked Holland’s second top-15 result of the season, it was Pierson’s third, along with four top-five showings in novice team events. She has been named top novice speaker at four tournaments, including nationals, and was rated in the top ten no fewer than 14 times.

Jodie Goodman ’16, who was the #10 individual speaker in the nation last year, was part of four top 10-finishing pairs and received top five individual honors at American and William & Mary. She currently sits in 39th in the national Speaker of the Year competition.

Swarthmore is ranked #22 in the nation by the APDA, slotted between Boston University and Georgetown. Yale holds the top position, well clear of the competition.

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