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RMC debate team

Rocky Mountain College debate team members Gerald Giebink, left, and Shay Sturdevant, right, stand with their debate coach, Shelby Jo Long-Hammond, in front of Tyler Hall on the RMC campus.

HANNAH POTES, Gazette Staff

Gerald Giebink has learned a lot about debate over the past seven years.

The Rocky Mountain College junior spent four years at Billings Senior High on the debate team, and the past three competing at Rocky Mountain College. In high school, it was all about spending 40 hours a week doing research and manipulating statistics to prove his points “and do everything I could to win.”

He swapped the Lincoln-Douglas style of debate in high school for the British parliamentary or world-style debate at Rocky.

“One thing I’ve been taught in college is the point is not so much to win,” Giebink, 21, said, sitting in Tyler Hall on the RMC campus. “The point is to further the conversation, to teach both sides and teach the judges something.”

The public will have the opportunity to see what that style looks like Saturday when Giebank, senior Shay Sturdevant, 22, and seniors Molly Davis and David Fejeran host three Irish national championship debaters. The Irish team, sponsored by the Irish Times, is traveling in the United States for a series of debates to promote civil dialogue through friendly competition.

The free event will begin at 6 p.m. Saturday in the Great Room of Prescott Hall on the RMC campus.

Giebink was a senior at Billings Senior High in 2014 the last time a trio of the Rocky Mountain College debaters took on a team from Ireland. Watching the debate inspired him to attend Rocky.

Sturdevant was a freshman who had just joined the team that fall. It was her first experience with debate.

“I was dragged in by my friend one afternoon after one of our other extra-curricular activities,” she said, in an interview with Giebink.

After one practice she traveled with the team to Denver for a debate, and though she didn't win, she got hooked.

“I did a very bad job the first time around, but I loved the activity,” Sturdevant said. “So I decided to stick around and improve my skills.”

And so she has. Sturdevant learned how to carefully lay out her argument, no matter the side of a topic she’s assigned, and how to speak with confidence in front of a crowd.

Debate has helped her see both sides of any issue, since she never knows until just before a debate what point of view she'll be expected to champion.

“It’s made me a lot more empathetic of situations,” Sturdevant said. “Even though I may not agree with all of them, I understand where they’re coming from.”

Shelby Jo Long-Hammond, associate professor of communication studies, has been director of debate at Rocky for 11 years. Over that time she has taken the program in different directions.

When Long-Hammond first arrived in 2006, the team used the fast-paced research-focused American parliamentary debate style and traveled mostly to regional competitions. But as she got more involved in international debate education, she saw the benefits for her students to look beyond the region and U.S.

“There’s a cultural interaction and a cultural learning that happens that I think is so unique,” she said. “Not that competition isn’t important. It is. But getting to know people and having a conversation becomes the most important thing for me, and I think it’s enriched my program.”

So Long-Hammond switched the style of debate to the one used internationally and she started taking her teams to other countries. Last year several of the 12 team members traveled to Greece and Jamaica to debate, and this year they competed in Ireland.

They still take part in debate competitions in the United States — in Montana, in Denver, and farther away in California and New York. But participating in debate against students from Ireland and many other countries gives students a whole different perspective, Long-Hammond said.

“Talking to people in Europe about the refugee crisis gives you a completely different view than we have here,” she said. “When you talk to people from Germany and Greece about it, it provides such a depth of experience to the conversation.”

Both Sturdevant and Giebink traveled with the team to Ireland this year to compete at Trinity College in Dublin. The college has a rich tradition of debate, Giebink said.

“At Trinity College, the list of the presidents of their debate society goes back to the 1700s,” he said. “Their debate society has lasted longer than the United States.”

Where debate in the U.S. tends to be intense, Ireland tends to be more laid-back, conversational and focused on relationship.

“I think we’ve brought that back, that idea of more philosophical thinking,” she said. “We get out our tea cups, drink tea and talk.”

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.