The Speech and Debate team in the small theater on the first floor of the C building at Pasadena City College on Thursday, March 16, 2017. The team's diversity has helped lead them to victories against 4-year colleges and universities, and they hope to win their upcoming state and national competitions.
PCC’s award-winning Speech and Debate (Forensics) members’ second home is the basement level of the C building. The hallway holds a collage of old and new successful forensics members and a case crowded with trophies, and behind the doors are forensics members either laughing, crying, or advocating for social change.
However, if the team’s abrupt budget cut keeps interrupting the their potential to succeed, that trophy case and collage of fame could have no more plaques or pictures to add.
Head coach of individual events Allan Axibal-Cordero explained that the amount of money the team receives from the district and the Student Services Fund fluctuates with the state of the economy, so he has seen drops in funds every year. Never in his four years, however, has he seen a budget cut as drastic as $6000-$7000.
“On the bright side, I know we aren’t isolated,” Axibal-Cordero said. “We know that this happened across all organizations in the school.”
Forensics Director Cindy Phu made several cuts to what the team usually provides in order to compensate for their reduced budget. Provided transportation turned into team carpools and traditional matching team apparel was forced to discontinue. Every year, like most organizations, Speech and Debate holds a banquet to celebrate another year of accomplishments, but there is currently no budget for that event either.
One of the most important switches Phu and the coaches had to make was adding a fee to the end-of-year Speech and Debate showcase. This event welcomes friends, family, alumni, and everyone else interested in seeing what forensics presents at their competitions.
“During practice, there is always repetition of certain parts of the speech or editing that is done up until tournaments, so to really see each piece come together and be performed simply for the sake of being performed, is always incredible,” forensics alumna Shannon Yong explained in an email to the Courier. “Each speaker always has his or her own style and to see that style come out and transform a speech is a great experience in and of itself.”
Forensics’ upcoming Phi Rho Pi Speech and Debate National Competition in Washington D.C. demands a large budget as well. The budget provides for hotel rooms, airline tickets, food and wellness, registration and entry fees for events, the banquet, and social events.
Usually, about 16 students from the team go to Nationals, but this year, the number was reduced to eight.
Immediate action has been taken all year to compensate for what they lost; it’s been a cycle of rejections and offers for the team’s fundings. Along with filling out a per diem request, Phu, accompanied by Axibal-Cordero and head coach of debates Jay Arntson, attended a faculty conference, hoping that the Nationals competition would fall under a “professional development” category to receive funds.
Those hopes were immediately denied, but with the team’s potential in mind, they forced themselves to keep searching.
All three then reached out to the PCC Flea Market, where they were granted $1,000 for the students’ nutrition, so all had meals filling enough to provide the energy they needed to compete for over 12 hours.
“Flea Market money that doesn’t go into operations always goes into providing for clubs and organizations with money they weren’t able to receive from the district,” coordinator of the PCC Flea Market Lindsey Reed explained. “Whether it be as a scholarship or a grant, it’s our way of giving back to these students. “
Cutting the number of students the team could bring to competitions may affect the team’s overall placement at Nationals, which is a concern of all coaches, along with Phu.
However, when the team took away five bronze medals, three silver, and two gold at the California Community College Forensics Association Speech and Debate State Championship (State) in Woodland Hills, they proved that although they don’t have the numbers to maximize the score, they sure have the talent.
“The team always puts their best foot forward, it’s just always up to the judges to decide on the awards,” Axibal-Cordero said.
Among the medalists from PCC at State was visually impaired student Laura Davila, who advocated for disability accommodation in the persuasive speaking event. In her experience at PCC, it wasn’t until she joined forensics that she finally felt included in a class.
“We may have a DSPS office here, but if disabilities were really, fully accommodated, then people would be more open to talk to me in my classes, and they’re not,” Davila said. “I felt really good about my performance at State, especially my conclusion, where I addressed that schools need to bypass the idea that disabilities are something to be afraid of.”
From being selected to compete at State, to wearing a bronze medal home, she’s proud to see her advocacy being recognized both in and outside of the classroom. Since Davila joined last semester, her presence and ambition gave the team new insight on accommodating disabilities.
“Having a visually impaired student on our team for the first time made the staff re-evaluate forensics’ own educational practices,” Axibal-Cordero said.
Another one of the several State medalists was Sadia Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani student who finished high school early and joined the team last winter intersession. She won her debate arguing that the Electoral College should not replace the popular vote, and also swept up a gold medal for her speech that argued President Trump’s policies couldn’t be changed by the “Day Without a Woman” protest.
State marked Khan’s first time performing an extemporaneous speech (extemp), where she had only 30 minutes to research one of three given topics and compose the speech before presenting. As great as the gold medal victory felt, she owed the weekend to her coaches and her team for the support.
“I was super nervous because it was my first time doing extemp, but Cindy and Allen really soothed my fears leading up to State,” Khan said. “At the end of State, I was always most grateful for the team. We would recollect as a group and talk about our best and worst moments, and being a part of that community was the most rewarding part of that week.”
Based on the results and performances at State, coaches finalized a roster of students who they believed were strong enough to compete at Nationals on April 9-16, where they will battle for the gold medal against other community college speech and debate teams to prove themselves as the best team in the nation. It was a challenge for all coaches, including Axibal-Cordero and Arnston to cut the number in half from their usual 16, but all are confident with the final eight representing PCC.
PCC came out with a strong fifth-place finish last year, and participants have regularly placed in the Top 15 in their events. With less students competing this year, the chances to rank are slimmer, but the team’s efforts at State proved themselves capable.
Yong reflected on what preparing for Nationals felt like as she closed her second and final year in forensics in Spring 2016. She recalled a series of mixed emotions during those weeks: the heartbreak and anticipation when the Nationals roster was revealed to the team, the nostalgia recognizing how quickly the school year passed for the team, and the pressure she felt to perform well for both herself and the coaches.
Once she competed, she was fearless.
“It was only during the last round that I performed, where I finally felt at peace and a sense of closure,” Yong said. “While walking away with Bronze at Nationals was an amazing feeling in and of itself, I am just thankful for the amazing experiences I had on the team.”
On the first Tuesday class right after State, the students going to Nationals went straight to preparing. Second-year forensics student Annelle Mouton explained that when preparing for the next competition, everyone in the team “starts over,” meaning they disregard all of their previous wins and pretend they’re practicing from scratch again. Students who performed formal speeches on national, regional, or international political issues at the will also have to adjust the way they present for the Nationals setting.
“California is very liberal, and since there’ll be judges from different states, we have to adapt the way we present political issues,” Mouton explained.
On the financial side of preparation, Arntson, Axibal-Cordero, and Phu are still securing the last $1000 received from the PCC Flea Market. While patiently awaiting for the funds that’ll come out of the showcase, all are still seeking creative ways to get funding. Some students have also been putting aside money out-of-pocket for Nationals.
According to Phu, while hoping for the best to come out of showcase funds, the speech team’s present budget for Nationals seems to be just enough to provide for that week, and she’s grateful for the team’s ambition despite the circumstances.
Phu will not be returning as a director of forensics next school year due to maternity leave, and the position will be taken over by Axibal-Cordero. He will continue to seek resources and creative fundraising methods to compensate for potential funding losses next year, but his number one priority is to not cut any students from the program.
“All year, no one ever complained. Coaches were willing to put in extra hours to help everyone practice, and even [alumni] came back as assistant coaches, so I’m really thankful for the momentum everyone has contributed,” Phu said. “I hope they keep that up this year.”
“I was in the speech team in college. I went to a community college. Those experiences changed my life. I want to change people’s lives the same way, and here, this program does a great job with that,” Axibal-Cordero said. “It’ll be worth people’s time at our showcase if they’re interested in seeing what a year’s worth of experiences can have these students grow the way they have been growing.”
The Speech and Debate team’s annual showcase will be on Thursday, April 6, at 6 p.m. in Westerbeck Recital Hall. PCC students, staff, and seniors have a $5 admission fee while general admission is $10.