Thursday, July 24, 2014 • 11:56
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A matter of debate



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March 19, 2014
I like to debate national and international topics. Most people do, I think. Everyone has opinions and many are willing to defend them in public. Some, of course, are unbearable in their fiery rhetoric on certain subjects. Some make perfectly good sense and influence or alter your own viewpoints.

A phone call to a Valley Center High grad named Autumn Shultz led me to a rather fascinating story about college debate teams and tournaments. I know Autumn, a freshman at Pt. Loma College, because her parents are my dog-sitters and Steve does some handyman chores for me.

Pt. Loma takes only the high achievers. It also is expensive, as most private colleges are. Some qualified applicants don't have sufficient funds, did not get enough scholarship money, and thus the loan simply becomes too daunting for the applicant and his or her family to handle.

Autumn had top grades and very high SAT scores. She also is one very determined young lady for someone age 18. Somehow she was going to Pt. Loma and nothing was going to stop her. In her hunt for scholarship money to defray the $40,000 annual cost she found $2,500 available if she joined the school debate team – first, of course, having to try out to prove she was up to the challenge.

"I took a high school government class and we spent some time (doing) debate; it was fun," she said.

Pt. Loma gave her the scholarship dollars after she was accepted to the team. Many high schools have regular debate teams, not so VCHS. However, despite her minimal experience her college interviewer saw something he liked.

What Autumn did not know is that Pt. Loma is one of the better debate schools in the country. There were high expectations because, as she put it, "we (Pt. Loma) expect to finish first." What she also found out is that being a team member is exhausting, time-consuming and unbelievably challenging.

In February, competing against 35 other schools in Moorpark, north of Los Angeles, Pt. Loma not only easily took first place but more than doubled the point total of the runner-up team. A week ago they were second against national competition in a Cal Baptist tourney which also had about 35 teams. It was a 3-day event and was billed as the Christian College Nationals.

"Daily competition started at 7 a.m. and ended at 10:30 p.m.," says Autumn. "They don't feed you. You bring your own snacks. You have breaks between matches but people wear out, get sick, lose their voices, and have zero energy at the end. It is very tiring."

To me, this sounds like survival of the fittest – both physically and mentally.

I called Autumn on her cell at 9 a.m. the day after the Cal Baptist competition. Problem was she returned home and didn't get to bed until 3 a.m. I offered to call back later but – surprise – she said she was busy most of the day, she said, even though she was on spring break.

Autumn is a second-semester freshman. Just to make the team is a major achievement. In the February meet, she and her partner, Ben Becker, finished ninth and won a gold medal in the novice division, which is for "people brand new to debate." Don't ask why you get a gold medal for ninth place. There are about 500 competing on those 40 teams. Ninth is very good finish for 18-year-olds.

But Wait! She won the novice division at the Cal Baptist meet, meaning she is a national champion in Christian College competition. Nice job, rookie.

To appreciate these collegians even more you need to know that in tournaments they don't get their questions until 15 minutes before a match. However, the entire team gets the question then and they huddle, talk, research (via lap tops) and then go their separate ways to face the judges.

Topics vary widely. Autumn has debated minimum wage, drone strikes, gun control, education, national security vs. privacy rights, the Affordable Care Act, the Three Strikes Law, and what she calls metaphorical topics. In debate parlance, the topics are called Resolutions and require debate using empirical evidence ... and if necessary, perhaps a bit of blarney if you are outgunned on the facts side by the opposition.

In the elimination rounds, it is one two-person team in a face-off with another two-person team. One judge determines if you advance. You usually have four of these matches. After that, the real heavyweights go at it and it takes three judges to determine who moves on because you are talking about motivated young people who make their cases very well. However, only one team advances.

Autumn confesses she can get "very snarky" in her pursuit of winning and moving on.

Everyone knows you can get good or better grades by attending all the classes, studying the subject matter, taking lecture notes, doing research and completing your homework. This is not really the case in debate.

A college debater becomes proficient mostly by one method – keeping up with current events. Current events can loosely be translated to include every major topic here and around the world. This requires daily reading of newspapers, maybe some magazines, surfing the net and, of course, engaging in give-and-take talks with members of your own team. Since your question comes only 15 minutes in advance you can't cherry pick, hoping to land on a subject you know very well.

Besides the obvious reward of personal satisfaction, our capitalistic society is at work. The better you are, the better you can earn more scholarship dollars from your own school. Motivated youngsters like Autumn loved to learn, yet the financial component is powerful, too. More scholarship dollars means a reduction in her student loan debt over time.

There is a broader story working here. Like all high schools, Valley Center HS has teachers and administrators who help youngsters locate and apply for scholarships large and small that come from a multitude of sources. I didn't know that qualifying for and service on a school debate team could mean dollars in your pocket. I do now.

The country clubbers at Pauma Valley, where I live, give out dozens of scholarships every year. Autumn was one of dozens who received one. The money, of course, went to defray admission costs. Besides living expenses, Autumn needed a lap top computer. I was involved and found others eager to help who knew of Autumn's need, and knew her family. Also, one man gave her a summer intern job at his company where she gained experience editing copy for training films.

Did I mention that Autumn's goal is to become a book editor and own a publishing company? She also intends on graduating in three years, which certainly will help the pocket book.

There is no debate that most teens heading off to universities and colleges need a helping hand, a leg up as they say, to have the opportunity to enroll in the better schools, which I would translate as a school with known academic rigor that results in turning out responsible, thoughtful adults with inquiring minds who can and do make a difference in this very complex country of ours.

As I see it, Autumn Shultz is going to be one of these.

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