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Beyond Words

Hofstra Forensics Competes in First Global Tournament

Jewell Christian Stewart ’19 made his way through the rain-soaked streets of modern-day Mitte district, and found himself in front of a crumbling concrete structure – a remnant of the Berlin Wall, the most famous landmark in Germany’s capital city. “MADNESS” was scrawled in fading black graffiti across a few slabs.

Hofstra Forensics Competes in Berlin

 “It gave me an eerie feeling of the history of this place and the lives that were lost as a result of the divide here,” said Stewart, a political science and rhetoric major from Lakeview, NY.

The moment was a highlight of a six-day trip to Berlin for Stewart and seven of his teammates on Hofstra’s speech and debate team, who competed in 23 different events at the International Forensics Association tournament, the team’s first global contest.

“My grandparents fled socialism and repression to come to America, so I felt a direct connection to the wall,” Stewart said. “It inspired me so much, and I felt as if I had a responsibility to do my best to spread my message because I knew that so many others before me, even in this city, did not have the privilege to speak so freely.”

Once a 12-foot high, 27-mile long, heavily militarized barrier that symbolized the differing ideologies of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 by communist-controlled East Germany to keep its citizens from fleeing to the west.  Thousands of landmines lay along its path, and attack dogs and armed guards who were instructed to shoot defectors on sight were in constant patrol. Torn down in 1989, only a few sections of the wall still stand in parts of the city.  

Stewart listened as the tour guide, Gregor, recounted how two brothers had carried out a dangerous secret plan to zipline across the barbed-wire covered wall in the dead of night --using an arrow, steel fishing wire, and homemade wooden pulleys -- without being detected by the guards below.

“People were willing to sacrifice so much to escape their circumstances,” said Stewart, who will attend Cornell Law School this fall. “The Berlin Wall was far smaller than I expected, but I think that speaks to the immense scale of the socio-political divide within Berlin that allowed for such an unimpressive physical barrier to split a nation’s capital in half.”   

The group spent two days getting acquainted with the city, first with a river cruise down the Spree where they learned about Berlin’s history during World War II and saw attractions such as the Reichstag, home to the German parliament.

The award-winning team regularly travels across the United States for competitions, but this was its   first trip abroad.

“Traveling internationally allows our students to take the issues that they care about to a wider audience,” said Tomeka Robinson, PhD, associate professor of rhetoric and public advocacy and director of forensics. “It also exposes them to different cultures, deepens their understanding of the world, and they get to see new things that they haven’t before at home.”

For some, like Stewart, it was their first time on a transatlantic flight, and for others, their first visit to a new continent.

“I’ve never been to Europe other than being in an airport,” said Christina Mary Joseph ’19, the team’s captain. “Being in Berlin and experiencing its cuisine, its culture, and looking around and seeing all the beautiful architecture has been so exciting.”

Hofstra Forensics Competes in Berlin

Undaunted by the weather, the team also explored the city by foot during a four-hour tour that began at the stunning Berlin Cathedral Church (better known as the Berliner Dom), which dates back to the 15th century, and passed through Museum Island, a collection of five world-class museums that has been classified a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its universal value.  

“Today’s tour just activated this nascent art historian in me,” said sociology major Donovan Harvey ’19, of Laurel, Maryland, who is weighing acceptances from five universities for graduate study in public policy. “I had the privilege of taking an honors seminar on architecture in my freshman year, so to see the different styles of architecture especially from East Berlin to West Berlin was really interesting.”

The students also spent some time in Bebelplatz, a public square flanked by Humboldt University and the State Opera House, where Nazi youth burned more than 20,000 books on May 10, 1933. They peered down at an empty bookshelf built into an underground memorial. A metal plaque amid the cobblestones declared: Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auche Menschen – translated, "Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people."

The message resonated for the students, who often address themes such as censorship, social justice, and racism in the pieces they present during competition, whether it be in prose, poetry, persuasion, debate, or impromptu speaking.

On the eve of tournament, the students huddled in two hotel rooms, practicing their presentations. They discussed strategy and listened to last-minute constructive critiques from teammates, Dr. Robinson, and her two coaching assistants, graduate students Zaiba Mansoor and Eunice Adounkpe.

Richkisha Walcott ’20 was running through an emotional persuasive speech about the crisis of untreated opioid addiction among prison inmates.

“You have a way of getting people to care about this issue,” Jack Dalrymple ’21 told her.

Hofstra Forensics Competes in Berlin

“But watch your pauses,” Adounkpe cautioned. “We did not even finish digesting what you just said, and you were already on the next point. In persuasion, we are coaxing people into our world, our view.”   

Walcott, a philosophy major and chemistry minor who plans to go to medical school, has been with the team since she was a freshman. The experience has helped her overcome her anxiety about public speaking. Soft-spoken and shy, she comes alive during her performances with unexpected power and charm.

She was slated for three other events over the two days of competition, which was held in the Park Inn Alexanderplatz Hotel and drew 150 students from 22 schools. Since 1991, the International Forensics Association has held annual tournaments for college students at locations around the world. 

“What we really wanted to do was give students a chance to travel and realize that there isn’t so much that culturally divides us,” said Nicholas Butler, PhD, president of the International Forensics Association and a lecturer at Northern Arizona University. “We want to bring people together through dialogue, through debate, and through advocacy.”

Hofstra Forensics Competes in Berlin

For Dr. Butler and Dr. Robinson, who competed against each other as college students, the Berlin competition marked a new milestone.

“To see this moment, ten years down the road, we can say we were once in these competitors’ shoes, and we still want to be part of the legacy of ensuring that other students are able to do this in the future,” he said.

By tournament’s end, Hofstra students had done exceptionally well, producing two world champions – Jewell Christian Stewart in prose and Donovan Harvey in debate -- and the University was ranked third overall.

“Proud is an understatement when I describe this group of scholars and advocates,” Dr. Robinson said. “They pour their hearts into every performance, and I’m lucky to be surrounded by such passionate and brilliant individuals.”

Business marketing major Stephanie Avila was proud of her fourth place standing in prose, where Hofstra students took three of the top four slots.  She had worked for two semesters on her piece, in which she embodied the character of a woman whose husband had abandoned her and left her wondering, bitterly, about whether women over 50 were worthy of love.

Hofstra Forensics Competes in Berlin

Avila credits the speech and debate team with helping her be more social, raising her awareness of world events, and building her capacity for compassion. “English is not my first language, so I used to worry about my accent,” she said. “But the speech and debate community receives you as you are. I can still be me.”

Team captain Mary Joseph, who has been accepted to three graduate programs in communication, came in second in prose for her chilling portrayal of a young girl sold into the child sex trade. 
Being on the team opened her up to new possibilities, she said.

“When I was in the ninth grade, I was asked to read the Bible in church, but I had just come from India and was really scared of public speaking and I cried until my father said I didn’t have to do it,” she said. “Today, I’m second in the world for storytelling.”

Team members agree that the Berlin experience strengthened their bond, as they spent free time wandering the city together, shopping, taking photos at the iconic Brandenburg Gate – site of President Ronald Reagan’s famous 1989 “tear down this wall” speech – and trying wiener schnitzel, a traditional breaded veal cutlet dish. 

“Not only did we gain individually,” Joseph said, “but traveling to an international location like Berlin gives value to what we do as a team.”

Student in Berlin