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LSU Speech and Debate Team has talent

Of the many extracurricular opportunities offered at LSU, membership on the speech and debate team has several advantages. After all, skills gained in debate, public speaking and dramatic monologues are perhaps some of the most versatile and useful in life beyond the university. Students learn organizational strategies, time management and meeting skills in what their leader calls "trial by fire.”

LSU's Mixon Lycaeum Speech and Debate Team members are all undergraduates and are currently led by Austin McDonald, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication Studies, along with volunteer coaches Erik Abshire, Eddie Gamboa and Kevin Garner. The group's faculty adviser is Associate Professor Stephanie Grey, also in communication studies.

Austin McDonald, Taylor McDonald
Austin McDonald (left), a Ph.D. student in the LSU Department of Communication Studies and head coach of the LSU Speech and Debate Team, and his brother and competitor Taylor McDonald (right), a member of the University of Alabama team.
W. Randall Macon

The team is named for Harold Mixon, who was recruited to teach classical rhetoric in the 1960s and led the debaters throughout the 1970s. Under his direction, teams traveled extensively and competed against Air Force, Georgetown, Harvard and other national debate powerhouses. Today's team owes its strong foundation and reputation for success to Mixon's early leadership and fundraising prowess.

A rather informal collection of students from nearly every college on campus, the team begins its training the week before classes start in August. The students travel about 10 times during the academic year to other universities for competitions. Students on the team tend to be "busy" according to McDonald – they are Tiger Band members, class leaders, drama students – and very engaged in campus activities.

McDonald, who attended the University of Alabama on a full speech scholarship as an undergraduate, has enormous respect for these students.

"I really appreciate the sacrifice that these students make when we travel," McDonald said. "They give up their weekends several times during the fall and spring semesters to participate and compete. Unlike other schools, LSU has no scholarships for debate or public speaking, so these undergraduates are doing this just because they see the intrinsic value in what they're doing – there's no other compensation."

The team competes in four or five "swings," two tournaments in one weekend, each semester. Swings are more cost effective for the participating universities because they reduce the cost of travel.

Team members learn quickly how to conserve their monetary resources, and combining events is just one example. The team budget is $6,000 per year, so members find creative ways to raise funds to allow them to compete against schools – such as the University of Alabama's team, which has an annual budget of $60,000 and 30 full in-state scholarships – with funding that is as much as 10 times greater than LSU's.

Most recently, members have used their gifts of persuasion to convince LSU Student Government, or SG, that the speech and debate team should be included in receiving a percentage of the student "performance fees"that are collected at registration. While SG agreed to support them, the team's next step is to convince the funding committee of faculty and students, who are tasked with selecting which campus groups receive these funds that speech and debate events are, indeed, performances.

Even with its shoestring budget, the team has made inroads toward national recognition. From 70th among 90 to 100 schools nationally in 2009, the team rose to 25th during the 2009-10 academic year and was 26th in 2010-11.

Erik Abshire
The LSU Mixon Lycaeum Speech and Debate Team hosted 17 schools for the annual Mardi Gras Swing in February. Pictured is 2005 LSU alumnus Erik Abshire, an electrical engineer, who served as a volunteer judge at the Mardi Gras Swing.
W. Randall Macon

Despite having lost many of its senior members after the spring 2011 semester, the 2011-12 team held its own while rebuilding. During the 2011-12 competitive season, the team had a total competitive speaking performance time of 4,422 minutes or 73.7 hours, not including rehearsals or showcase performances, and traveled a total of 5,515 miles. In nine months, they racked up more than 70 awards: 50 individual awards, seven regional championships, nine events qualified for nationals and one top team award.

In the fall of 2011, LSU hosted its inaugural Death Valley Swing, which required the team members to serve as staff rather than as competitors. Even this experience has its value, according to McDonald.

"When we host a tournament, team members learn how a tournament is organized from the inside," he said. "The Death Valley Swing was the weekend before Halloween, so the students had fun coming up with the theme, costuming and getting into character."

During the spring 2012 semester, the team participated in a total of four more swings and the American Forensic Association National Individual Events Tournament. Earlier this year, the team also hosted the Mardi Gras Swing, which found its beginnings in the mid-1980s.

McDonald credits every student on the team's successes during the last academic year.

"I'm very proud of what we've accomplished," McDonald said. "That would not have happened without the efforts of every single person on the team. We're a scrappy bunch!"