Sophomore Johnpaul Sleiman believes in the power of debate.
“It builds friendships, and it also builds creativity,” he said. As the architect of the Paladin Invitational, now in its third year, Sleiman, a physics and environmental science double major, has given South Carolina’s high school students an unprecedented opportunity to hone their skills in a university setting.
This year, however, he’s going one step further: “I wanted to give back. I decided to make all profits from my speech and debate tournament go towards sending kids to nationals.”
National level debate competition can be life-changing for a high school student who is applying to college.
“Nationals is a really big deal. It’s the best of the best from all 50 states, coming together to compete. If you win, you get a giant trophy and a lot of recognition,” says Erik Grell, assistant professor of German and faculty advisor for Furman University Forensics. However, just because a student qualifies does not mean they get to make the trip: At a baseline, students can expect to sink about $800 into interview fees and basic travel.
“Most of these kids can’t afford that, and parents have to take off work,” says Sleiman.
And that’s where he comes in.
By covering the baseline costs of competition, Sleiman’s scholarship is sending six qualified high school students to nationals who otherwise might be unable to participate. The plan is for scholarship funding to double by next year.
“It means a lot to me and everyone on my team, because we get to change someone’s life for the better,” Sleiman said. “Not a lot of students make it to nationals, so it’s one of those prestigious things you get to put on your resume. It’s amazing.”
Sleiman organized the tournament in his freshman year, a feat Grell called “unparalleled.”
“I think it says a lot to Johnpaul’s character and dedication, balancing all of his academic commitments along with this giant speech tournament,” he said. “It is really, really remarkable.”
Grell, who taught Sleiman in German class and acted as a faculty point-person for the tournament, believes Sleiman’s efforts exemplify what sets Furman apart.
“Furman is always trying to give back to the community, and find impactful, enduring ways to do that,” said the professor. “Furman is a liberal arts college, so we want to cultivate citizens.”
Sleiman and Grell, who competed in debate nationals as a high-schooler himself, both attested to the critical insight, communication skills, and perspective-broadening that debate imparts. Sleiman aspires to pursue science advocacy work once he leaves Furman, and believes that his debate training has gifted him with insight into contrary perspectives.
“I could help bridge the gap between fact and fiction,” said Sleiman. “Debate isn’t just about yelling and arguing; it’s about making someone really understand.”
The Paladin Invitational and scholarship are just two of Sleiman’s legacies to Furman.
“He just discovered his own star,” said. Grell. “I didn’t even know you could do that. He’s going to have a star named after him, which is really exciting. Who does that?”