CHC students of UO Forensics: A glimpse into Oregon’s trailblazing debate and mock trial teams

Illustration of two people debating

Story by Lauren Church, CHC Communications
Illustrations by Lauren Jin, CHC Communications

“We drove down to Berkeley, I think, for a tournament last year. We sang Shakira, Taylor Swift and all the really popular ‘bop’ songs,” B-Team Mock Trial Captain and Clark Honors College sophomore Kat Finseth recounted with a grin. “That’s what brings you together as a team and what I love about mock trial.”

“I’m not going to say it was easy, traveling on the weekends,” Finseth acknowledged. “Sometimes we would drive for 8-12 hours or take a van to PDX at 4 a.m., but we really bonded as teammates because of it.”

Finseth, originally from Kentucky, gathers every Tuesday and Thursday evening with students from across the country who all ended up in the same place: UO Forensics.

Sumit Kapur is the UO Mock Trial president, but he actually hadn’t partaken in debate or mock trial much before joining the college team. “My high school was not one that had a culture of forensics activities,” he said. Kapur’s interest peaked during a CHC orientation when he attended mock trial’s bootcamps and learned the basics of what team membership would be like.

“I remember that I just loved it,” Kapur said. “The community was intellectually engaging, and friendships started forming easily.”

Friends also introduced UO Sophomore Tommy Douglass to debate during his freshman year at McMinnville High School. “I was trying out for the basketball team and I got cut,” he said. Douglass had a few friends on the debate team, so he decided to give it a shot instead. “I kind of just fell in love with it,” he added.

Douglass studies political science and economics, setting his sights on law school after college. “In debate, you’re working with real-world, prevalent issues beside and against very smart people,” Douglass said. “Without debate, I don’t know if I’d be perusing a law degree. It really shaped my academic and professional focus.”

Years later, Douglass still debates with his high school debate partner, Eli Wiles.

Wiles, also a CHC sophomore from McMinnville, Oregon, is considering pursuing an environmental law career as he earns two degrees in political science and environmental studies. “My parents were both debaters at the UO, so you could say I was forced into it,” he chuckled. “I enjoy it so much that I don’t blame them, though.”

As the first student group on campus, Oregon Forensics began just ten days after the university opened its doors in 1876. “Oregon has had a bigger impact on the world of forensics broadly than any other public university in the United States,” Trond Jacobsen, the UO Forensics team leader and CHC faculty member, said. “That’s a pretty bold statement for a little university in little old Oregon.”

“Mock trial has made me a much more structured thinker,” Kapur mentioned. “When I’m writing a paper, for example, I’m always thinking of how it would sound in a courtroom.”

Over the years, UO Forensics has achieved prestigious national successes while providing team members unique opportunities to blend their academic knowledge with different points of view on prevalent social and political topics. “Forensics is one of the most successful things Oregon has ever done,” Jacobsen added.

There are two branches of the forensics team: debate and mock trial.

Oregon practices two types of debate — one being National Parliamentary debate. “We have one team that’s exceptional at it and I’d say is one of the best ten in the country,” Jacobsen said. “Then we have our other style of debate which we are in our second year of creating.”

In collaboration with other universities in the region, the UO developed a revolutionary style of debate—Pacific Northwest debate. The new style builds on traditional ones, but it’s designed to accommodate students with jobs and other time-consuming commitments. “This style focuses on more conversational, big-picture types of debate and community building over competition,” Jacobsen said. “So far, PNW debate has been a big success.”

In mock trial, on the other hand, students are provided roughly 200 pages of materials which they use to participate in a simulated trial regarding a single season-long issue. Teams prepare arguments for each side of the case.

Oregon Mock Trial has six teams with varying levels of commitment to the program, including different practice and competition schedules. Each team includes about ten students. The ‘A Team’ holds the highest rank with the B, C, D, E and F teams following. Kapur, Team-A’s captain, estimates he and his team members dedicate roughly 16 to 24 hours each week to mock trial — depending on whether the weekend includes a tournament.

Douglass and Wiles are both enrolled in Jacobsen’s debate course at the CHC where they learn the activity’s basics. “It has been one of the more impactful classes I’ve taken at UO,” Wiles said. “It’s so hands-on and all-encompassing.”

As a part of the class, most of Jacobsen’s students attend debate competitions. Douglass and Wiles participated in the Puget Sound Invitational’s open division in late February, finishing undefeated.

“After you spend several months preparing for a tournament like that and you get to see how your work is implementing, it’s really fulfilling,” Wiles said. “Regardless of how it goes, the night after a tournament is a relief. It’s a time to go to Olive Garden with your friends after being too busy to eat all day.”

With heightened stress during tournaments and the time it takes to prepare for them, the students say forensics can be a difficult addition to their crowded schedule.

“It’s challenging in the sense that you have to balance your academic and work life with mock trial,” Kapur admits. “At least a few nights a week, you’re dedicating to practice, and on weekends, you’re busy competing.”

“You have to make decisions about whether you should spend a weekend at a tournament right before finals or devote that time to studying and catching up on sleep,” Douglass added.

While they agree forensics is an intellectually demanding and time-consuming supplement to their already rigorous academic schedule, Kapur, Finseth, Douglass, and Wiles say skills they build on the team have proven useful to their academic endeavors.


Illustration of Mock Trial students singing in a bus
"We sang Shakira, Taylor Swift and all the really popular ‘bop’ songs,” Finseth recounted with a grin. “That’s what brings you together as a team and what I love about mock trial.”


“Mock trial has made me a much more structured thinker,” Kapur mentioned. “When I’m writing a paper, for example, I’m always thinking of how it would sound in a courtroom.”

“If I ever want to be a trial lawyer, I know what those skills are already at some level,” he added. “The rules used for evidence in mock trial are the same ones that are used in real trials.”

Wiles expanded on the valuable social and professional networks students build as a part of the UO Forensics community. “Students who aren’t in debate miss out on working with some of the smartest students and coaches at other schools,” he said. “Even though you might not be as smart as them, you can connect because you share the same passion for debate.”

“There’s a lot of people I’ve looked up to in this program,” said Kapur. “I was able to gather a lot of distilled information about law school and how to prepare for it from people that I trusted in mock trial.”

Above all else, the teammates say they appreciate how forensics has supported their holistic development as they graduate into a wide world of opportunity and challenge.

“Mock trial and debate have really helped me come out of my shell,” Finseth said. “It’s taught me how to be comfortable with my opinion and be able to express it in an effective manner.” Douglass agreed: “Learning how to talk to people and succinctly presenting your ideas is something that’s really important, in general,” he said. Wiles said debate has taught him how to consider issues’ contrasting arguments and stay open-minded. “In debate, you argue not just the side you support, but the side you would otherwise oppose.”

Despite the 2020-21 forensics competition season being completely remote, Kapur said the six teams actually attended more competitions this year than usual since travel expenses and logistics are out of the picture.

Of course, Kapur said, he struggles with the same ‘laptop fatigue’ everyone grapples with during remote, stationary work. “It’s a challenge to be on Zoom for entire days at a time,” Kapur added. “I have in one day seen the sun rise and set during one mock trial tournament on Zoom.” 

Not only has UO Forensics competed more this year than in seasons past, Jacobsen said the team had a uniquely accomplished season. “Every team has been increasingly successful over the course of the term,” he mentioned.

The A-Team earned a winning record at the Opening Round Championship Series tournament where Kapur won an Outstanding Witness Award and one of his teammates, Anna Mueller, won an Outstanding Attorney Award.

Kapur counts this season as particularly successful for other reasons, too: “Being a part of a student organization like mock trial gives you the much-needed social interaction that everybody misses right now,” he said. “That’s been my favorite part; social interaction and intellectual engagement in a time that is not conducive to either of those things.”

Finseth said the team has gotten creative with how they stay in touch during the pandemic. “We have a team Snapchat so we can send memes and still connect with one another on a social level,” Finseth said.

The underclassmen look forward to the possibility of an in-person competition season next year. They miss the team comraderie that remote participation simply can’t replicate, even though traveling for tournaments is more time-consuming than competing from home on a laptop.

 “We live with it, and it’s worth the sacrifice because we love debate,” Douglass said.