~ By Lisa Maria Boyles
Standing at the front of a classroom in the North Gym, Sameer Sundranj grinned before he started. Then the University High School student launched into a 5-plus minute speech, spewing words faster than a rapper. With gasping breaths in between phrases, Sundranj expounded about China, Zambia, capitalism, Marxism and neo-liberal policies.
While many high school students spend time over the summer break relaxing and kicking back, 30 students spent almost two weeks learning policy issues, preparing arguments and honing their debate skills at the Barking Bulldogs Summer Debate Institute.
The Barking Bulldogs Summer Debate Institute is an affordable summer debate camp for junior high and high school students, focusing on policy debate.
Dr. Doug Fraleigh, chair of the Communication Department, said the camp is open to high school students interested in taking their debating skills to the next level. This year’s crop included about 20 day students from the Central Valley and 10 more from outside our region, who stayed in dorms on campus.
The camp was directed by Deven Cooper, a former national debate champion. As director of debate at Fresno State, Cooper coached the Barking Bulldogs Debate Team consisting of Candis Tate and Sierra Holley to a Sweet 16 finish at the National Debate Tournament in 2014.
Cooper started the Summer Debate Institute in 2015 with 17 students, and it ran for about a week. Now in its second year, the Summer Debate Institute was larger and longer, running from June 30 through July 10.
Several of this year’s camp students came from larger California metro areas, choosing the Fresno State camp over others much closer to their homes, including Stanford and Berkeley.
Jacob Barrera, 17, is a senior at Eastside College Preparatory in East Palo Alto. His high school debate partner spent several times what he did to attend a camp in the Bay Area. Barrera is happy with his choice to come to Fresno State instead.
“All of these instructors have multiple years of debate experience,” Barrera said. “It’s amazing to know you can get this kind of breadth of knowledge. What we are learning here is so comprehensive and relevant.”
In fact, two of last year’s camp attendees – Skylar Harris and Young Park, both of whom were seniors at Clovis North – took what they learned in camp and made it to the Tournament of Champions in April in Lexington, Ky. There, they competed against the best nationwide debate competitors from the top 78 schools.
Harris and Park were both back this summer helping teach the camp, before heading off to start college at CSU Fullerton and UC Berkeley respectively. Fraleigh praised Cooper for assembling a staff of excellent coaches to work with the debaters.
This fall, Cooper is heading to California State University, Long Beach, to direct the debate team there. Tom Boroujeni will take the helm of the Barking Bulldogs this fall, and will lead next year’s Summer Debate Institute.
Students have to be prepared to argue either side of an issue, so they have to learn the arguments for both sides. This gives them skills to analyze issues and come up with solutions. They also develop organizational skills, poise and confidence.
Ivy Cheung, a senior at Downtown Magnets High School in Los Angeles hadn’t been to Fresno before.
“This camp has made me like debate even more,” she said. It has also given her a different perspective than her she has gotten doing debate in Southern California. “It’s good to meet kids from different parts of California.”
Coleen Gray came from the farthest away. Before moving to Clovis in May with her family, she was researching affordable debate camps from her previous home in the Oklahoma panhandle. She came across information for the Summer Debate Institute and thought to herself, “Hey, I’m moving there.”
As she goes into her senior year at Clovis North, she is glad she has made some friends here over the summer to smooth her transition into a new school and community.
J.J. (Jacob) Sutton, 16, is a junior at University High. Sutton said this is his first experience with policy and learning to debate.
“I like how the instructors understand how to teach us to debate in front of the best coach or parents,” said Sutton.
Many local businesses and organizations donated materials like pens, paper, snacks and meals to help make the camp possible and to expand it from last year’s scope – The Diesel Doctor donated timers and T-shirts (Andrea and Jack Mendonca), and meals for the students were donated by were donated by Jasmine Garden, P.S. Catering and Hiriam Arenas, Round Table Pizza, Deli Delicious, and Dolores Martinez of Sanger Unified School District.
“We want to give students a chance to experience our campus and our debate program, and hopefully encourage high school debaters to continue debating in college,” Fraleigh said. “We’re optimistic some will be future Barking Bulldogs.”
College football coaches know who the rising star athletes are, before they get to the college level. That’s not the case with debate.
“Compared to athletics,” Fraleigh said, “debate is a more under-the-radar activity.”
Fraleigh said camps like the Summer Debate Institute really give debate coaches an opportunity to see the stars who are out there, who the best debaters are. It also gives students an extended opportunity to try out the campus here at Fresno State.
Kierra Jackson, 16, said the debate camp experience is really intense but worthwhile. A junior at East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, Jackson said she loved being on the Fresno State campus.
“The campus is really pretty and I love the heat,” she said. “I would definitely consider coming to college here.”