UNL Speech and Debate Team

The Cornhusker Speech and Debate Team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln recently won its eighth Big Ten Conference title and has been ranked among the top 20 teams nationally for the last 22 years. 

The team is actually two teams that compete separately. Some students compete on both, according to speech and debate program director Aaron Duncan. Nonetheless, speech and debate share their collective achievements and work ethic. 

According to Duncan, the speech and debate team has one of the longest competition seasons of all activities on campus. Associate director Justin Kirk, who coaches debate, and associate director Allison Bonander, who coaches speech, also help students and travel to competitions with them.

“Our students work extremely hard,” Bonander said. “I think that’s a good insight into where we currently are in the season, that our students are on their way to where we expect them to be.”

The speech team won its eighth Big Ten Conference title at this year’s competition. However, the success of speech and debate isn’t exclusive to the speech division. Kirk said he was also impressed with the current state of the debate team. Kirk said 12 of the 13 members of the debate team qualified for the national tournament this year and having that many students qualified in the first semester is almost unprecedented for UNL.

“We’ve got a bunch of really natural leaders on the team,” Kirk said. “At all grade levels [we] are very well prepared to move into the future and compete at the national level this year.”

Kirk said the debate division of UNL’s team is finished with its tournaments this semester and is now working on research and talking points to prepare for spring tournaments. On the other hand, Bonander said the speech division still has two tournaments to compete in this semester, with one taking place in Hastings this weekend.

Kirk, Bonander and Duncan all agreed speech and debate is challenging. Duncan said each student meets for one-on-one coaching sessions twice a week and is constantly working and revising their performances, or in the case of debate students, their research and talking points. Duncan also said humility is an important virtue for students to have.

“There’s few things in life where you walk into a room and people will rank you, and sometimes that ranking will give you wins and losses,” Duncan said. “If you say, ‘I’m going to be open minded and evaluate what works and what doesn’t work’ … [those traits are] the hallmark of successful people.”

Bonander, who used to compete on the team, said she now cherises her time as a faculty coach. While she loves to see the team win trophies and have the students’ hard work pay off, her proudest moments come from her individual coaching sessions.

“When the light bulbs go off for students and they start to understand, I get the joy of seeing them improve day to day. That’s why I continue to do this,” Bonander said. “The tournaments are great … but I'm most proud of our students when people don’t see it.”

Kirk said he thinks every student in the country should be required to take a debate class. He said he thinks it was the best education he ever received in school and is possibly the most valuable activity students can participate in at college.

“You can teach somebody content, or you can teach somebody how to go out and gather content and learn it on their own,” Kirk said. “It embraces all the ideals of what a liberal arts education should be … to think critically about the problems the world faces and apply that research to solve the world’s problems.”