Making Champions: Ohio University Speech and Debate team in third century of building confidence

Published: December 1, 2023 Author: Ken Klein

When Nancy Cartwright was a student at Ohio University, the speech and debate team was her life, she recalls. At tournaments, judges told this kid from Kettering, Ohio, she had an interesting voice. 

“I used that power to get to where I am now,” Cartwright told The Athens News in 2017. She became the voice of Bart Simpson and other Simpsons characters, Chuckie Finster in Rugrats, Rufus in Kim Possible, and more.

Ohio University’s speech and debate team — launching careers and building confidence — is:

  • Baked into Ohio University’s legacy
  • Competitive on a national level
  • Well coached
  • Supported by alumni competitors such as voice actor Nancy Cartwright

Legacy

In the early days of Ohio University, student-led literary societies organized on-campus public speaking and debate competitions. The two most prominent — founded in 1819 and 1822 — were the Athenian and the Philomathean Societies, says former speech and debate team member and history buff John Gibbons (BSC ‘85).

Three speech and debate team members pose with their awards
Jalen Tolbert, Emily Osborne and Emily “Em” Marlow with awards at tournament sponsored by Ball State University, October 15, 2023

Without a physical library, debaters, orators, and writers from student literary societies pooled their books to create their own lending system located in an attic at Cutler Hall.

“I found a dissertation at Alden Library that quotes a diary of a young debater/speaker who worked in that attic library, pondering life while looking through the ‘half-moon window facing the west,’” said Gibbons, founding partner and CEO of Naomi Technologies in New York.

“Whenever I come back to campus, I take current members of the speech and debate team — especially new members — on a walk to Cutler Hall to show them the ‘half-moon window facing the west.’  I tell them how deeply important debaters and speakers have been to Ohio University...for two centuries.”

Ohio University was a founding member of the National Forensic Association (NFA) in 1971. Teams from Ohio University and Eastern Michigan University have never missed a NFA Nationals, the oldest national collegiate tournament dedicated to a full range of literature interpretation, public address, limited preparation, and debate events. Ohio University was crowned the inaugural NFA National Champions in 1971 and has won multiple national titles since its inception.

Competitive Excellence

The well-traveled team competes against top collegiate programs such as Western Kentucky, Ball State, Alabama, George Mason, Bradley University and more.

Mackenzie Joseph is shown holding the championship award
Senior Mackenzie Joseph wins 2023 national championship

On November 4-5, 2023, Ohio University team members placed in multiple categories at two tournaments hosted by Otterbein University (Ohio) and Bradley University (Illinois).

In October 2023, Emily Osborne won first place at the regional tournament hosted at Ball State University, and Abreanna Blose, Grace Jarchow and Miranda Truslow won first place in a competition at Marshall University.

Some Ohio University competitors come from powerhouse high school programs. Journalism junior Abreanna Blose is from Perry High School in Massillon, Ohio, where she competed all four years and was a speech captain. 

Others start in college as novices.

“Coming into college I had no prior speech and debate experience. The coach convinced me to give it a shot, and I quickly fell in love with this activity,” said Mackenzie Joseph (BSC ’23).

In April, Joseph won the 2023 National Oratory Championship Award sponsored by the Interstate Oratorical Association. Ohio University’s Susan Adair won this championship in 1969 when the Interstate Oratorical competition had divisions for men and women.

Coaching

Jennifer Talbert is shown with the Distinguished Service Award
John A. Cassese Director of Forensics Jennifer Talbert.

Ohio University’s team is coached by Jennifer Talbert from the School of Communication Studies in the Scripps College of Communication. Her full title is John A. Cassese Director of Forensics; Cassese is a donor and former team member and coach.

When Talbert arrived at Ohio University in 2018, she had 26 years of college-level coaching experience.

On April 17, Talbert received the Distinguished Service Award from the National Forensics Association. The coach fosters an environment “where students can grow and flourish,” says national champion Joseph.

Alumni Support

Seven forensics scholarships awarded $19,000+ to 10 Ohio University students in the 2023-24 school year, according to Talbert, the coach.

Scholarships awarded to Ohio University Speech and Debate students are funded by former competitors or program directors, says Dr. Jerry L. Miller, Professor & Associate Director for Undergraduate Studies at the School of Communication Studies.

Examples include The Harold and Jeannette White Scholarship in Forensics. Harold White was a team member; after graduation in 1946 he served as a U.S. Bankruptcy Judge in the Northern District of Ohio.

A cornerstone of alumni support is The Nancy Cartwright Endowment for Forensic Students. In 2012, Cartwright returned to Ohio University to deliver the commencement address, sharing tips for success based on her experiences, including “hitch your wagon to a winner.”