Graduation Profile: Academic success isn’t up for debate

Waiting with bated breath for the results to be posted, the excitement in the room was palpable. After a moment of silent scanning, a single shout goes up and the team erupts. Jumping up and down, the cheers from the crowd signal that the team of Jyleesa Hampton and Quaram Robinson made it to the final round of a national circuit debate tournament for their first time.

“Debate is just very fun. It’s very exciting. You get a rush, win or lose, for the love of the game,” Hampton, an Overland Park senior, said. “I just felt such community and such love from the KU Debate team.”

Jyleesa Hampton, left, and her debate partner Quaram Robinson, who finished second overall at the Cross Examination Debate Association National Tournament.

During this year’s competitive season, Hampton and Robinson received a first-round bid at-large to the National Debate Tournament (NDT). This bid is given to the top-16 debate teams in the country based on their performance during the regular season and recognizes them as automatic first-round qualifiers for the NDT. Hampton and Robinson, the 36th Jayhawk team to receive this recognition, also made history as the first KU team composed of two women and the first composed of two African-Americans.

Hampton says the moment she qualified for her first finals round at a national tournament is one of her favorite memories from her five years on the KU Debate team. The tournament was held at the University of Southern California and her team continued to win round after round, until reaching the finals against the team from Northwestern University, which would later become NDT champions. Although she and her partner lost in finals on a split-decision, Hampton remembers advice from KU Debate coach and graduate student, Sean Kennedy.

“Sean says ‘playing with the house’s money.’ Once you get to a certain point, everything on top is gravy. That’s the philosophy that we used when we got to finals,” Hampton said.

Although Hampton’s undergraduate debate career has come to an end, she plans on continuing her involvement with KU Debate as a member of the coaching staff when she begins pursuing a master’s in communication studies this fall. Hampton is graduating this spring with a B.A. in African & African-American studies, women, gender & sexuality studies and political science. With a busy travel schedule in debate and a busy classroom schedule, Hampton says her debate experience has greatly influenced her academic success and vice versa.

“In terms of skillset and performance in the classroom, debate has immensely helped me in writing papers, being able to articulate my ideas, both orally and written, getting access to research assistant jobs and becoming a McNair scholar. Really pursuing and knowing how to pursue a research agenda as an undergraduate is a skill that I learned from debate amongst many others,” Hampton said. “Simultaneously the knowledge that I gained in my departments helped mold my debate arguments. Things that I would read in class often ended up into our arguments because they resounded very much with how I understood the topic.”

In addition to the KU debate team and support from her various departments, Hampton credits much of her continued success to the resources available through the university’s McNair Scholars Program. The McNair Scholars Program assists low-income, first-generation and underrepresented minority undergraduates as they prepare for doctoral study.

“It has been fundamental in helping me make the gap from undergraduate junior to experienced researcher pursing a master’s degree,” Hampton said. “It’s not just financial support but social and emotional support that I didn’t yet know I would need.”

Hampton became a McNair scholar in 2014 and completed a research project through the program which was a case study of African-American women and their interactions with the police. Hampton said it was also interesting to read through existing research that examined police interactions, police brutality and disparate policing in regards to the African-American community. Throughout her research, Hampton said the topic was garnering more and more media attention and toward the end of her research project Michael Brown, a young African-American man, was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri – catapulting the discussion onto the national stage.

“Ferguson’s not something new. There’ve been moments like this throughout history. As an African-American woman I was very interested in how my own life is affected and how I move throughout the world. It’s always something I’ve been reading on and writing on. As I progress through KU I’ve gotten the chance to formally write on it in research projects, in jobs, in essays and in writing samples,” Hampton said.

She plans to continue her research and study of African-American interests throughout her academic career. After earning her master’s, Hampton plans to work toward a Ph.D. in African-American studies, eventually becoming a professor at the university level. Hampton says the skills she’s gained through debate, research and her academic work in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, have greatly contributed to her future plans and set her up for success.

“Being able to construct an argument, being able to understand what people are telling you and being able to question that. That process I’ve garnered through the College and honed through debate,” Hampton said.