CHEYENNE – Getting extra practice and one-on-one coaching opportunities is invaluable for high school debaters who want to compete at a high level.
But it can also be costly.
That’s why Matthew Liu, director of the University of Wyoming’s forensics program, launched Team Wyoming earlier this fall. Team Wyoming is a free service designed to supplement the instruction high school debaters receive through their school teams. It’s free and open to any high school debater in Wyoming, as well as those living in the broader Mountain West region.
There are private debate coaching services available, but Liu said they typically charge thousands of dollars, which shuts out students who don’t come from affluent families.
“It occurred to me that if we kept the focus limited by geography, we have the resources to offer the equivalent completely for free,” said Liu, who added that the program costs nothing but time. “We want to level the playing field, because we decided no average student in Wyoming could spend that kind of money on debate coaching.”
“Wyoming debate is strong. There is a good amount of speech and debate in Wyoming, but many of the coaches are overworked and underpaid, so it can be a lot to ask of a person. Our goal is to offer a supplement to make their lives easier.”
Right now, Team Wyoming has a handful of regular participants who meet with coaches like Liu via Zoom a few times a week for sessions that last between one and two hours. It’s an opportunity for students to refine their arguments and prepare for upcoming tournaments.
And it’s also an opportunity for Liu, who also coaches for UW’s debate team, to start scouting and grooming talent for the college circuit.
“A strong high school program means we’ll have excellent recruits who can go on to compete against Harvard, Stanford and Northwestern,” Liu said. “We want the best of the best when we’re doing that.”
Kaitlyn Campbell, who is a senior at Wyoming Virtual Academy, competed in debate last year with Saratoga High School, but this year there weren’t enough people interested to support a school team.
That’s how Campbell, who intends to participate in debate if she attends UW next year, got connected with Team Wyoming.
“In our practices, we go really in-depth into the minutiae of debating. I’ve honestly learned more about debate in my few short weeks with Team Wyoming than I did last year,” said Campbell, who has already competed in some virtual tournaments – which is the format the majority are being offered in because of the pandemic – this year.
Campbell said Team Wyoming has helped her both sharpen her public speaking skills and learn more about real-world problems and policy debates.
“You get some really great one-on-one instruction,” she said. “You can ask any of the coaches any question you have, and they’ll answer it to the best of their ability. You just have so much debate knowledge you can tap into.”
Lawrence Zhou, who is a UW graduate student and Team Wyoming coach, said even after the pandemic ends, he envisions keeping some of the instructional sessions online, which allows people from all over the state and region to participate.
“Debate investment nationally is quite fragmented. There are some states with very robust debate instruction, which means there are lots of schools that do it, a lot of tournaments and high-quality instruction,” said Zhou, who first became interested in debate while attending high school in Oklahoma. “Wyoming is relatively isolated and disconnected from the national circuit. … What we’re offering is coaching that could make Wyoming students competitive at the national level.”