There was a time not that long ago when Jessee Espinosa was unsure if he’d be graduating from high school.

Fast forward a few months later and the Merced College freshman can say with all sincerity that he’ll be running for president of the United States someday.

These two realities may appear to be in stark contrast of one another, but Espinosa’s dedication towards school and his future have changed dramatically thanks to his participation in the Merced College debate team. The ability to eloquently articulate an argument based off of facts instead of emotion has awakened a passion in Espinosa that he didn’t know existed.

“The thing about this type of debate is it forces you to stay up to date on current events,” Espinosa said. “Because of that, you learn a lot about government processes and the way the world works. So not only are we learning how to develop our argumentative skills, but we’re also learning real-world applications for these skills.

“A lot of debaters go into law, advocacy or politics because of that.”

Despite the four-member team (Espinosa, Gustavo Garcia, Alex Dickson and Jasmine Reeves-Thomas) coming together for the first time in September, Merced College has seen nothing but early success. After taking multiple awards from their first two tournaments, the team currently ranks 43rd in the National Parliamentary Debate Association Rankings out of 250 schools and is ranked 14th among community colleges.

Parliamentary debate is a limited-prep competition where two competing teams are given a prompt – usually on a current event or problem – and then 20 minutes to research it and create an action plan. The teams of two then present their arguments back and forth over the course of 42 minutes. 

The success comes as no surprise to debate team coach Professor Elizabeth Patterson, who has seen the group’s dedication and tenacity from day one. After all, the first major win for co-founders Espinosa and Garcia win was convincing the College that the team should exist in the first place.

“We’d done debate together in high school at Buhach Colony and were in the same statistics class talking about how we should get involved with the team at Merced College,” Garcia said. “It turns out there was no team, there was just a debate club and it had no returning members.

“We decided we’d start a new one. The old club didn’t compete, though. They just got together and talked, so we needed to change the by-laws and do a lot of research on what it would take for our team to compete.”

In addition to the paperwork and steps involved in putting any organization together, Espinosa and Garcia had to deal with the logistics of funding the operation.

“We had to seek out and get a lot of signatures from around campus,” Espinosa said. “We had to participate in Title IX and discrimination seminars. We had to recruit so we could compete. We had funding challenges.

“Straight fundraising, especially with a club our size, doesn’t bring in enough money. You have to pay entry fees, travel costs and sometimes pay for hotels. It’s been really difficult.”

The team hopes that continued success will lead to them being recognized as an accredited organization on campus and receive direct funding from the school or garner sponsorships from the community at large.

They’ve been able to compensate for lost practice time so far by having a former All-American debater as a coach.

“I had a tremendous opportunity, receiving a scholarship to go to St. Mary’s College in Moraga,” Patterson said. “Pretty much every other weekend we were flying to tournaments. My partner and I were ranked in the top 50 of individual debate partnerships my final year, so I absolutely have the experience.

“When they approached me about starting the team, they were so determined and convincing it was hard to say no. We don’t have the same advantages as the four-year programs or established junior college teams, but California is where the competition is. So, if they’re competing here, they’re doing well.”  

The ultimate goal is to participate in Nationals at Daytona Beach, Fla. in the spring. Everyone acknowledges quite a few hurdles remain before that can become a reality. For now, the club is focused on growing their numbers heading into the spring semester.