Lee prison debaters best Texas A&M at first-ever competition behind bars

Inmates beat Aggies in 3-2 vote at George Beto Invitational Debate inside Huntsville Unit

LCHC-A&M debate
Lee College Huntsville Center inmate debaters Troy Thoele, far left, and Craig Caudill, near left, accept the first-place and winners’ plaques from their coaches Jeremy Coffman and Adam Key as Texas A&M debaters Michael Buse, right, and Anthony Nguyen, far right, offer congratulatory applause. The first-ever George Beto Invitational Debate, held Friday, Oct. 7, inside the Huntsville “Walls” Unit prison, pitted the college’s inmate debate team against the team from Texas A&M.

HUNTSVILLE, TX — As they sat inside the chapel of the Huntsville “Walls” Unit prison awaiting the start of the first-ever George Beto Invitational Debate, the inmate debaters from the Lee College Huntsville Center considered the long odds they faced — incarcerated convicts with few academic credentials and limited access to news and information about the outside world, competing against the award-winning debate team from Texas A&M University.

But after both teams had laid out their cases for and against the resolution that Donald Trump’s Achilles’ heel is foreign policy, it was the inmates who defeated the Aggies in a 3-2 decision. To Craig Caudill and Troy Thoele, who debated for Lee College, the victory was reminiscent of David’s triumph over Goliath.

“I feel like I just made parole,” Caudill joked when Lee College was announced the winner and the entire chapel — inmates, wardens and correctional officers, spectators and even the students and coaches from Texas A&M — burst into enthusiastic applause.

“I’m a little overwhelmed. The level of intellect the team from Texas A&M had was amazing,” Caudill said. “Nobody expected us to win. But just because we’re in prison, it doesn’t mean we haven’t tried to change or don’t want to change. Debate has given us better cognitive thinking skills that we can use to function in a free world setting.”

For six months, the Lee College team trained as often as they could within the confines of their strict prison schedule: huddling together on the yard to sharpen their arguments, squeezing in extra practice during study hall in the unit’s education area and even facing off against coaches Adam Key and Jeremy Coffman, champion debaters themselves with nearly a dozen national titles between them.

“Eight years I’ve coached and this is about as proud as I’ve ever been,” said Key, a Texas A&M doctoral student and full-time speech instructor for the Lee College Huntsville Center who began recruiting students for the inmate debate team just one year ago. “I’ve never seen a group of debaters this motivated. They’ve picked up in a couple of months what others take years to learn.”

LCHC-A&M debate
Lee College Huntsville Center inmate debaters Troy Thoele, left, and Craig Caudill, right, argue their case at the first-ever George Beto Invitational Debate, held Friday, Oct. 7, inside the chapel at the Huntsville “Walls” Unit prison. The inmate debate team bested the speech and debate team from Texas A&M University in a 3-2 decision.

To ensure an even playing field for competition, neither team was given advance knowledge of the resolution to be debated. After narrowing down their topic from a list of five options, the teams were provided the same research materials and 30 minutes to prepare their cases before taking to the podium. Caudill and Thoele gathered in the back of the chapel with their teammates and coaches, scanning newspaper articles for information and bouncing ideas and potential angles around the group.

Lee College built their argument around Trump’s rise to the top of the Republican presidential ticket despite his controversial remarks, his unstable foreign policy approach that could jeopardize America’s relationships with other countries and inability to be a strong and respected leader. Michael Buse and Anthony Nguyen of Texas A&M argued that Trump’s primary weakness is actually his temperament, which has caused him to speak and behave in a way that has alienated women and minority voters and made him less likely to accept counsel from advisers.

A panel of five judges — Hassan Assad, a professional wrestler better known by the moniker “MVP;” Jason Bay, pastor of First Baptist Church Huntsville; Dessie Cherry, a former warden and retiree from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice; Allen Hightower, a former Texas legislator; and Raymond Middleton, a volunteer chaplain at the Walls Unit — ultimately decided the inmate debaters had best proved their case.

“The ability to be an effective communicator is key to your success in life,” said Assad, who was just 16 when he was sent to prison in Florida and served more than 9 years before being released. “People are going to judge you by the fact that you’re a convicted felon, but you have the opportunity to disarm them with your words.”

LCHC-A&M Debate
Hassan Assad, a professional wrestler better known as MVP, congratulates the Lee College Huntsville Center inmate debate team after their defeat of Texas A&M University at the first-ever George Beto Invitational Debate held Friday, Oct. 7, inside the chapel at the Huntsville “Walls” Unit prison. A convicted felon who served more than 9 years in the Florida prison system, Assad returned behind bars to judge the debate competition and encourage team members to continue pursuing opportunities to better themselves before release.

Though Caudill and Thoele were the only ones to take the debate stage, both described the Lee College victory as a group effort. The help of their teammates and coaches was invaluable, and Senior Warden James Jones and Assistant Warden Matt Dobbins of the Walls Unit were instrumental in making the debate program a reality behind bars. Even their fellow inmates throughout the prison were excited about the debate and offered the team words of encouragement and best wishes, they said.

“I’m proud of everybody,” said Thoele, one of more than 1,200 incarcerated students pursuing associate degrees and certificates through the Lee College Huntsville Center. “The entire unit supported us. Debating and taking college classes made me a role model and an example for other guys. I hope this motivates them to do something to better themselves.”
Lee College offers more than 100 associate degree and certificate programs, as well as non-credit workforce and community education courses, that prepare its diverse student body for advanced higher education; successful entry into the workforce; and a variety of in-demand careers. With the main campus and McNair Center located in Baytown, Texas, and a satellite education center in nearby South Liberty County, the college serves a geographic area of more than 220,000 residents that includes 14 independent school districts. To learn more, visit www.lee.edu.


Debate Team wins IPDA national community college championship

BAYTOWN, TX – In a feat previously unseen in collegiate debate, the Mendoza Debate Society at Lee College has earned its third consecutive International Public Debate Association (IPDA) National Community College Debate Championship – and Director of Forensics Joe Ganakos has been named the 2016 IPDA Bennett Strange Coach of the Year.

The honors were announced at the 2016 IPDA National Championship Tournament and Convention hosted March 31-April 3 on the Lee College campus. Nearly 500 competitors participated.

Lee College debaters were the IPDA National Championship Tournament Community College Champions – delivering the best performance in the tournament’s 19-year history – and the Season Long Community College Champions, capping off a standout regular season in which the team amassed more than 150 awards and several members reached national prominence for their individual accomplishments.

The duo of captains Kyle Diamond and Rigo Ruiz won the 2015-16 IPDA Team Division National Championship, setting an all-time record for points earned in team debate. When combined with the scores earned by the third-place pair of Emmanuel Perez and Josh Lyrock, Lee College debaters also set an all-time points record en route to winning the IPDA Team Squad National Championship. Jerry McCauley was named 2015-16 IPDA Junior Varsity National Champion, and Diamond finished the season as the 2015-16 Varsity Division National Runner-Up and National Championship Tournament Varsity Finalist.

Overall, the Mendoza Debate Society at Lee College was the top-ranked debate program in Texas for the 2015-16 IPDA season – besting opponents from Southern Methodist University, Stephen F. Austin State University, Prairie View A&M University, East Texas Baptist University, College of the Mainland, San Jacinto College and Tarrant County Community College, among others. The team was also competitive against some of the top universities in the nation, finishing fifth in the IPDA Founders’ Cup race that reflects combined success in the Novice, Junior Varsity, Varsity and Professional divisions.

Diamond and Ruiz will next defend the team’s 2015 Madison Cup victory April 18 at the 2016 James Madison Commemorative Debate & Citizens Forum in Virginia. The competition field will include 36 teams from prestigious debate programs like Stanford University, Cornell University and Emory University.

For more information about the Lee College Debate Team, contact Ganakos at jganakos@lee.edu or 281.425.6502.

Lee College offers more than 100 associate degree and certificate programs, as well as non-credit workforce and community education courses, that prepare its diverse student body for advanced higher education; successful entry into the workforce; and a variety of in-demand careers. With the main campus and McNair Center located in Baytown, Texas, and a satellite center in nearby Liberty, the college serves a geographic area of more than 220,000 residents that includes 13 independent school districts. To learn more, visit www.lee.edu.

Debate team national champs again

For the second straight year, the Lee College Debate Team capped off a record-setting season by earning a trio of national championship titles: the 2014-2015 International Public Debate Association (IPDA) Season-Long Community College Champions, the 2015 IPDA National Championship Tournament Community College Champions, and the 2014-2015 Team IPDA Squad National Championship.

Debate team posing with awards Members of the Lee College Debate Team after the 2015 IPDA National Championship Tournament in Boise, Idaho. Pictured (l-r): front row – Cody Bijou (captain), Reagan Dobbs (captain); second row – Joselyn Mendoza, Shawn Start, Emily Trevino, Rigo Ruiz; back row – Himmler Assing, Dax Ramgoolam, Brandon Reinertsen, Kyle Diamond.

Lee College is the only two-year institution in the IPDA to repeat as national champions and the only two-year institution to win season-long and tournament titles in the same year — beating opponents from elite college and university debate teams from around the world.

In total, Lee College debaters won more than 150 awards and honors over the course of the competition season and finished as the top-ranked program in Texas within a field that included Texas State, Texas Christian University, Stephen F. Austin and East Texas Baptist universities, among others.

“What began in 2013 as a simple idea and a couple of enthusiastic students has grown into back-to-back National Championships and a dozen dedicated debaters,” said Joe Ganakos, head coach. “They’ve proven themselves to be exceptional ambassadors for Lee College, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the best and brightest university students in the nation.”

The team success was augmented by outstanding individual performances. The duo of Team Captains Cody Bijou and Reagan Dobbs captured the 2014-2015 Team IPDA National Championship. Captain-elect Kyle Diamond won the 2014-2015 Varsity Division Championship at the IPDA national tournament in Boise, Idaho, and was also honored as a tournament double octo-finalist. Dobbs was both the Varsity Division runner-up and third-place speaker, and Bijou finished the tournament in third place in the Varsity Division, as the fourth-place speaker and as an octo-finalist.

In the Novice Division, Dax Ramgoolam was the 2015 IPDA National Championship Tournament runner-up and captain-elect Rigo Ruiz finished as the season-long runner-up. Ruiz was also the second-place novice debate speaker at the national tournament and a novice double octo-finalist, while Joselyn Mendoza finished in eighth place in the season-long Novice Division standings.

The Debate Team will return to competition in September at The Mendoza Debates at Lee College to kick off the 2015-2016 IPDA season. Lee College will also host the 2016 IPDA National Championship Tournament next April. For more information about the Lee College debate program, contact Ganakos at 281.425.6502 or jganakos@lee.edu.

Martin awarded prestigious Cooke scholarship

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After running into a few obstacles while applying for the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, Lee College sophomore Zachary Martin had almost given up on the possibility of being one of just 75 community college students selected nationwide.

Then Georgeann Ward, coordinator of the college Honors Program, stood up at a recent event to make a special announcement.

Martin, a graduate of Ross S. Sterling High School in Baytown and co-captain of the award-winning college Debate Team, had just finished an exhibition round and was expecting to hear the judges’ decision. Instead, Ward told the 30 supporters gathered in the Bayer Conference Center that Martin had been named a 2014 Jack Kent Cooke Scholar.

The highly selective Cooke Foundation scholarship is the largest private scholarship for community college transfer students in the country. Recipients receive up to $30,000 per year to attend an accredited, four-year college or university, where they can pursue any course of study they choose. The award money may be used for tuition, living expenses, books and other required fees.

“I was completely blown away,” said Martin, an honors student and the fourth Jack Kent Cooke scholarship recipient in Lee College history. “Ever since I graduated from high school, I didn’t know how I was going to pay for college. To know that I’ll be able to be go and get my education without worrying about that is such a burden off my shoulders. It’s a blessing from God himself.”

Cooke scholarship applicants must be current students at an accredited U.S. community college or 2-year institution with sophomore status; have a cumulative college GPA of 3.5 or higher; plan to transfer to a 4-year college or university to begin studies in the coming fall; and demonstrate significant unmet financial need.

A member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, Martin has earned a 4.0 GPA and will graduate from Lee College in May with an associate degree in music. He is ranked the No. 1 novice debater in the country by the International Public Debate Association, and has also received statewide honors for choir, among many other accolades.

Charlotte Mueller, a music instructor at the college, said she can’t imagine a more worthy recipient of the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship than Martin. A student in her music literature and applied piano classes, Martin was a role model and natural team player who never let personal adversity get him down.

His character and deep sense of self-worth and value left an impression, she said.

“Whatever Zach does, he puts his heart and soul into it,” Mueller said. “He goes out of his way to encourage other students to do their best. While his responses and answers to questions in class were first-rate, he always turned to other students and prompted them with comments that he knew would lead them to make significant contributions to the class discussion as well.”

Though he has not yet made a final decision about where he will continue his collegiate studies, Martin said he is excited about what the future holds.

“I am very pleased and grateful that I received so much support in making sure my education at Lee College was the best it could be,” he said shortly after learning he was named a Jack Kent Cooke Scholar. “I thank you all so very much, because you’ve really made a difference in my life.”

Debate team vies for national title

When the Lee College Debate Team came together in September for the 2013-14 season, expectations for the brand new organization were modest at best.

After all, none of the seven founding team members — Cody Bijou, Reagan Dobbs, Cassie Kutev, Zachary Martin, Brian Montgomery, Tyra Mouton and Dylan Putt — had ever competed in the International Public Debate Association (IPDA) tournaments that routinely draw hundreds of skilled collegians from around the country.

“At first, all we wanted was to establish something that would last longer than our own time on campus,” said Bijou, a co-captain.

But that was before the team amassed more than 40 awards and honors at 10 different tournaments in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. And with a trip this week to the IPDA National Championship, to be held April 10-13 on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University, team members and coach Joseph Ganakos are far more confident about their chances of taking the top prize.

“Now we’re the top community college in the association,” said Bijou, whose performance throughout the season has earned him the distinction of being the second-ranked novice debater in the nation out of nearly 500 competitors. Fellow captain Martin is ranked No. 1.

“The fact that we’ve been able to literally write history is amazing,” Bijou said. “Everyone is constantly putting their best foot forward.”

The debate team’s unheard-of success in its inaugural season has regularly come against schools with more members and bigger budgets, from in-state rivals like College of the Mainland and Texas A&M University, to powerhouse contenders like Louisiana State University and the University of Arkansas. Members devote 20-40 hours each week to tournament practice, poring over current events and fine-tuning proper argument construction, fact organization and oratory strategy.

In each round of competition, debaters are given five potential topics from politics, philosophy, sports, economics and even pop culture. After narrowing the topics down to a single choice, they then have 30 minutes to prepare their arguments for the stage, where they are judged on delivery, tone, organization and logic, among other factors.

“This is a form of intellectual, gladiatorial combat,” Ganakos jokingly told dozens of supporters last week at a special exhibition held before the team embarks on the 15-hour drive to Murfreesboro and the quest for a national championship. He first envisioned a debate team at Lee College in 2006 and lobbied for its formation every day until his vision became a reality.

“LC debaters have consistently proved themselves against some of the most talented college and university students from around the country,” Ganakos said. “It has been a tremendously special ride.”

Despite the excitement of traveling for competition and the thrill of collecting golden trophy after golden trophy, many debate team members consider the familial bond that has formed between them to be the greatest thing to come from their whirlwind first year of competition.

Everyone is different: Martin has cerebral palsy and sometimes struggles to maintain his endurance at tournaments; Bijou earned a degree in instrumentation; some are majoring in art and music; and others are non-traditional college students. Yet, through debate, they have forged a strong connection.

Even after engaging in fierce, aggressive practice battles with one another, the teammates are able to quickly shake hands and relax into the unique camaraderie that holds them together.

“People are definitely starting to recognize us at tournaments,” said Dobbs, captain-elect for the 2014-15 season. “We’re loud, we all prep together and we help each other. We all agree that the best debates are when you can walk out and feel like a better person, knowing that was a great round.”