Skip to main content

Sugar House Journal

Siblings highlight hopeful legacy of debate team

Dec 06, 2016 10h22 ● By Travis Barton

Senior Nate Obbard consults his notes as his sister, sophomore Julia Obbard, gives her speech in the policy debate category on Nov. 12 at Skyline High School. (Travis Barton/City Journals)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

Highland High School may have a debate team of only 23 members with a brand new coach, but it hasn’t stopped them from winning two tournaments already in the policy debate category.

“It’s cool to see high school students put in so much work in and outside of the classroom to compete,” said CJ Lester, first-year debate team coach.

The Rams debate team has four varsity members made up of two teams. Sophomores Kaitlyn Robertson and Sophie Jensen won the Hunter Haunting debate competition at Hunter High School on Oct. 28 and 29. While the brother sister duo of senior Nate Obbard and sophomore Julia Obbard won the Beehive Bonanza at the University of Utah on Oct. 7 and 8.

“The level of prep and the level of ability and focus with debate students is beyond what the average AP or IB student would do in their spare time on the weekend,” Lester said. “So it’s pretty admirable that they take their time and embrace it with such a vengeance.”

The two pairings compete in the policy debate category, which is more evidence and research based. Participants are set up in head-to-head matchups of two-person teams. Speakers focus on how quickly they speak, called spreading, and their speech and rebuttal. The topic is a yearly resolution where teammates prepare positive and negative cases on the resolution. This year’s resolution is the U.S. government should substantially increase its diplomatic and/or economic engagement with China.

“The topic takes many forms so there are different ways we can engage with China and many different policy mechanisms through which to do that,” Nate said.

Often policy debaters will speak between 300 and 400 words per minute so it requires preparation and quick thinking. Nate said policy debate can run counter to other debates, which can be about eloquence and poise.

“It’s more about being efficient, being a good technical debater and using your speed to get out all the arguments,” Nate said. “Public speaking is important and presentation is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.”

Nate is a four-year member of the debate team and this is his first time partnering with his sister.

“I won a debate camp competition and so I was deemed worthy,” Julia said with a wry smile. Impressed by her brother’s abilities, Julia joined the team as a freshman. Julia said her brother tends to be really good at any academic endeavor and debate is no different.

“Nate’s probably one of the best debaters in Utah…he’s always been passionate about debate and education. He practices a lot and doesn’t get lazy about it when it comes to research,” Julia said. In his first debate as a novice freshman year, Nate took third place. They’ve made for a quality partnership.

Julia said they work well together since they’ve known each other for so long.

“I look at him and see what he thinks and we can communicate better,” Julia said. Nate said he had reservations about the experience differential but said his sister is doing great with where she’s at in her development.

“She’s learning super quick and won the camp tournament, but that’s secondary to the fact she takes the time to put the work into the kinds of arguments we’re making,” Nate said. “She’s had to make an adjustment on her end and she’s been super flexible.”

Family teamwork bodes well for the future of Highland’s debate program. Lester is the third coach in four years at the school. While she has no experience with high school debate, she comes from a background of public speaking at a local, regional and national level.

Lester is utilizing any measure by which she can improve to “escalate the skill set of the new students.” She said she has goals to soak up debate knowledge, she’s taking a class on how to teach policy debate and is using her advanced students to teach the novices.

While the debate team might not have the funding and resources of private or other public schools, team members hope to sustain the enthusiasm for future debaters. 

“We want to spread that passion and get rid of the stigma around debate,” Julia said. “It isn’t just some strange, nerdy elective that nobody can do, it’s something that’s fun and educational and can help in a lot of aspects of life.” 

Those aspects can include school work or an understanding of the world. Nate said debate improves public speaking, presentations, writing skills and researching.

“More than anything else, debate teaches you how to think about new problems,” Nate said.

“It’s not just using big fancy words,” Julia said. “It’s analyzing things, it’s learning to think on your feet.”

Talented and capable of winning multiple events this year, Nate said winning is secondary to making sure the team lasts after he’s graduated.

“[Debate has] shaped my high school career and I don’t want to run the risk of future students at Highland, few as there may be, not having the opportunity to have that experience as well,” Nate said. “It’s a competitive event, but at the end of the day the reason it’s fulfilling is not because of how many debates you win or lose, that’s just the cherry on top.”

Highland’s next event will be the Silver and Black competition at Alta High School on Dec. 1.