Not many college freshmen attempt to organize something as complex as a debate tournament. But not many are as passionate about speech and debate as Furman student Johnpaul Sleiman.
On Saturday, Jan. 20, Sleiman, a physics and chemistry major, and friend Devin Remley, a student at the University of South Carolina, worked together to bring nearly 200 students from 16 high schools in North and South Carolina to participate in the inaugural Furman University Paladin Invitational. And they did most of the organizing within a tight, four-month window.
With guidance from Riverside High School teacher David Dejesa, support from the Furman Debate Society and a loan from the Furman Student Government Association, the two hammered out tournament details from online registration to trophies. They even secured additional funding, prizes and food.
Upon his return from Brussels in mid-October, Communication Studies Associate Professor Brandon Inabinet said he was “at a loss for words” when Sleiman made him aware of the reams of tournament paperwork the freshman had produced during his absence. Inabinet, who also serves as faculty advisor for the Debate Society, collected his thoughts and joked, “Well, in that case, anything that goes wrong with this plan is definitely your fault!”
The tournament, by all accounts, was a rousing success. Sleiman said he and Remley worked day and night for weeks to pull the tournament together and that Gail Nicholas, president of the South Carolina Speech and Debate District, told him it was one of the best tournaments she had witnessed in her years as a coach.
Sixty judges participated in the competition, including the Furman Debate Society, which showed up in force for the day-long contest.
Said Inabinet, “It takes enormous ambition to succeed at an event of this scope as a first-year student at Furman. The rigor of our courses alone is enough to completely overwhelm most students. Johnpaul went above and beyond.”
Inabinet observed something else about Sleiman besides his obvious talent for tournament management and his unflagging will to take ownership of a project—humility. “He’s completely open to criticism and feedback,” he said. “But at the same time, he moves beyond naysayers to find an innovative solution at each turn. That’s a skill and temperament honed by years of debating.”
And just maybe, it’s a skill that takes flight when advisors and mentors give students the freedom to pursue their dreams. “It was a collaboration between two college freshmen who had the same dream and the drive to make it happen,” said Sleiman.
Sleiman and Remley, both of whom graduated from Riverside High School in Greenville County, are all in for next year when they anticipate as many as 700 contestants. They’ll start planning earlier, though, to give more schools an opportunity to register and prepare.
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