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Behind the Podium

Adam Symonds and Jessica Clarke won the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) national championships held in Carbondale, Illinois, in March.

One of the benefits of competing in collegiate forensics is strikingly obvious. All it takes is one visit to a speech and debate tournament. Adam Symonds, Jessica Clarke, and other students who represent the award-winning Whitman College forensics program have cultivated verbal skills that range from excellent to extraordinary.

"The confidence you develop in your speaking ability is tremendously important," Clarke says. "The ability and confidence to speak up and make your views known is critical."

Yet, as Clarke and Symonds, her cross examination debate partner, prepare for life and careers after Whitman, they give thanks to forensics for talents other than their considerable mastery of the spoken word. Just as important, they say, are the skills and discipline they have honed while preparing for collegiate debate competitions.

"It goes beyond the ability to think and speak quickly and critically," Symonds says. "You also become quite adept at researching and gathering the information needed to support your opinions and arguments in a well structured and persuasive manner. Those abilities to gather and assimilate large amounts of information will be beneficial for the rest of your life, regardless of what you do."

Symonds and Clarke, who currently reign as Whitman's most experienced and talented policy debate team, have logged countless hours of work behind the scenes in laying the foundation for their success at the speaker's podium.

"We spend as many as 40 to 50 hours a week working on debate, which is over and beyond our regular classroom work," Symonds says. "As you prepare for a tournament, you face a situation where you can never finish. You can never be well researched enough to say that you are absolutely prepared for a tournament. Your best hope is to have enough information ready so that you can make your arguments strategically and persuasively."

Symonds, a senior, and Clarke, a junior, are both majoring in politics. With a minor in rhetoric, Symonds talks about staying at Whitman for a few years to work as an assistant forensics coach. Another immediate possibility is the master's program at the International Relations School at the University of Washington. His long-range plans, while still tentative, focus on teaching politics at a college or university where there exists a distinct overlap between the politics and forensics departments.

Clarke's possible post-Whitman plans begin with law school and lead to work as a professor of law. Working as a practicing attorney - civil rights and women's issues are her primary legal interest - also remains a future possibility.

Because many debate topics touch on legal issues, forensics is a great way to help prepare for law school, Clarke says. "I've learned more about anti-discrimination and civil rights law through debate than I could have learned through any class at Whitman," she says. "In a more general sense, I think debate prepares you for success in the real world to a greater extent than any other activity at Whitman."

A year ago, Symonds teamed with Sean Harris (now graduated) to form the top debate duo in the Northwest. They won the prestigious Northwest Policy Debate Tournament, placed ninth in the CEDA national championships, and qualified for a second consecutive year for the National Policy Debate championships.

Symonds and Clarke joined forces as a debate team in the fall of 1998 and quickly established themselves as one of the best tandems in the Northwest. In early 1999 they won a national tournament at Long Beach State University. There, Clarke was honored as the tournament's best speaker, receiving the prestigious Jack Howe Award, and Symonds received the runner-up prize.

In February, the duo was ranked among the top 16 teams in the country, earning a first-round bid for the National Debate Tournament in Michigan this spring. In March, they also won the Northwest CEDA championship.

"I think our transition as a team has gone very well," Clarke says. "We have different styles, different strengths and weaknesses, that tend to complement one another. We like to think that we're the best team in the Northwest and that we're going to do very well at the national championship tournaments this spring."