Skip to main content
Group of people posing for a photo

ILR Looks to Broaden Speech and Debate Opportunities

No tryouts. No membership fees. No experience necessary.

The only requirement for students joining Cornell Speech & Debate Program teams is an interest in developing skills that support civil discussion.

Team member Yinkei De Maqua, A&S '23
Team member Yinkei De Maqua, A&S '23

More of the 100 students on the university’s speech and debate teams will be able to hone their skills through local, regional, national and world competitions due to a $2 million endowment campaign kicking off this summer.

The Stepp-Nelson Endowment honors Pam Stepp, a former ILR senior lecturer who founded the contemporary version of Cornell’s speech and debate program in 1982, and its current director, ILR faculty member Sam Nelson.

A competitively successful speech and debate program requires competing against the best schools, according to Marc Kesselman A&S ’93. “That means showing up to the most important tournaments, and that means getting out of Ithaca. It’s really no different than Stanford traveling to Notre Dame for a football game or Duke basketball traveling to play UCLA.”

Cornell team experience, he said, positioned him for government positions through which he influenced public policy decisions on labor, foreign affairs, the environment and food safety. “I attribute 100% of my success in these public service roles to the lessons I learned through the speech and debate team.”

Like many, Kesselman says that civil discourse can ease political polarization.

“The single most important skill that we learned is tolerance for viewpoint diversity. It taught me to open my mind, to truly listen, to clearly articulate a point of view, and to be able to disagree with civility.”

“The future of our global civilization depends upon Cornell and like-minded institutions raising the next generation of critical thinkers who not only tolerate, but relish, viewpoint diversity.”

Team members Mateu Healey-Parera, AAP '26, and Meg Kandarpa '23
Team members Mateu Healey-Parera, AAP '26, and Meg Kandarpa '23

“We desperately need to train students to be able to get into a room full of human beings, look them in the eye, and advocate and persuade,” he said. “By endowing the speech and debate team, we can provide these opportunities to every Cornellian, regardless of their background.

Jodi Kruger, A&S ’90, Law ’93, says her life was also shaped by the team.

“The communication and analytical abilities I honed have been invaluable, both professionally and personally. No less important are the leadership, interpersonal and time management skills I developed during my time on the team,” she said.

“As an introvert, being part of the team gave me an outlet to interact not only with my teammates, but also with alumni and other competitors throughout the country,” said Kruger, a law librarian for the federal government.

Among the alumni and students interviewed in a video about the speech and debate program, Kruger serves on the Los Angeles Metropolitan Debate League board, a non-profit organization that brings debate to Los Angeles’ most underserved public high schools.

Grace Kwon '24, who joined the team as a junior, was also changed by her experience as a debater.

“Coming from two years of community college during the pandemic, I didn’t have any prior debate experience. I couldn’t believe how welcomed I was into the team,” Kwon said.

“I feel that I’m not just part of an organization, but part of a community and family.

Team members Isabella Ireland '26, left, and Margot Treadwell '24
Team members Isabella Ireland '26, left, and Margot Treadwell '24

My experiences have given me the confidence and encouragement to think differently and argue on logic.”

Jamey Dumas, ’CALS '91, CALS M.S. '95, said the type of thinking taught through competitive policy debate offers more rigorous frames for understanding complicated interactions, increasing comfort with uncertainty and disentangling contradictory information.

Also, he said, “The skills I learned coaching speech and debate have proven invaluable for mentoring peers and more junior officers, to encourage their critical thinking, and to help develop their confidence to make a positive difference in advancing sometimes unwelcomed analysis to better inform decision-makers and those who implement national policy.”

The endowment campaign was announced at an event this spring.

More information about the Stepp-Nelson Fund is available by contacting Paula Maguire, associate director of ILR Alumni Affairs & Development, at