Until the phone call, everything seemed normal. Chris Medina, the debate coach at Wiley College, had offered a scholarship to a student — a young man highly recommended by his high school coach. But there was a problem. The financial aid staff had never received the student’s diploma.
“I called him and said, ‘Hey — what’s going on?’” recalls Medina. “And he revealed that he hadn’t graduated from high school.”
The student was homeless. He was living in a hotel with his family, working at a Chinese restaurant, feeding them with takeout food from his job. But he also knew that Wiley, an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) in Marshall, Texas, was his best path for a new life. After talking with Medina, the student earned his GED within two weeks and now has a 3.5 GPA at Wiley.
Medina loves telling these stories. When you ask about his achievements, he brags about his students, not his success as a coach. But let’s be clear: Medina’s teams win. A lot. Since he arrived at Wiley in 2011, the debate program has won more than 50 national championships, even though the 1,300-student college competes against much larger institutions. Medina’s students are shaped more by adversity than privilege, but debate has boosted their self-confidence and self-perceptions, igniting new ambitions and intellectual passions.
Medina experienced these same epiphanies in his teens. He grew up in a tough Los Angeles neighborhood, and he was “heading down the gang road,” as he puts it. His mother worked two jobs to support him and his brother. When he hurt his elbow playing football, the highly competitive Medina needed something to fill the void. He was intrigued by debate, so he joined his high school team — and hated it. “I was terrible my first semester,” he says.
Everything changed when he watched a dramatic interpretation, which in high school speech and debate competition involves performing a passage from a book or play. A teammate interpreted Dr. Faustus, and the would-be gang member was enthralled. “I didn’t know that was part of debate, and I said, ‘Wow — I want to do that.’” He never joined the gang. “I stopped hanging out with those guys,” he says. “My debate team became my family, and they encouraged me to be better than I thought I was. Until then, I didn’t know I was smart. I didn’t know that I could get into college, let alone graduate from college. This activity saved my life.”
The Wiley debate team has a deep and inspiring history. In the 1930s, the team, led by legendary scholar and poet Melvin B. Tolson, participated in the first interracial debate in the United States, the first interracial debate in the Jim Crow South, and the first at a white college. Over a 10-year period, Wiley lost just one match. In 1935, when they defeated the University of Southern California’s all-white national championship squad, the influential speech and debate association Pi Kappa Delta refused to recognize the victory. Students never forgot. In 2014, when Wiley became the first HBCU to win Pi Kappa Delta’s prestigious national championship, the entire team broke into tears.
That history is important to Medina and his students, and his determined teams have a rallying cry: “Uphold the legacy.” Sadly, when Tolson departed the school in 1947, the program ended, and it wasn’t resurrected until 2008, when actor and director Denzel Washington gave Wiley a $1 million gift. (Washington had starred as Tolson in the 2007 film The Great Debaters, and he pledged another $1 million to the program in January 2018.)
To encourage debate at all HBCUs, Medina has created an HBCU national speech and debate championship, which debuted in January 2018, thanks to a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. Only about 10 percent of college debaters are students of color, and before the competition was announced, fewer than 10 HBCUs had debate teams. By the time the tournament was held, 22 teams were competing.
Subtle racism still exists in collegiate debating, Medina says. At one recent tournament, two students gave a speech based on the second studio album by rapper Kendrick Lamar, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. A white judge disregarded it. “I just can’t connect to it,” she said.
More frequently, however, the competitions expose students, spectators, and judges alike to new thoughts and ideas. In the final round of a 2016 competition, one of Medina’s star debaters — a student who had overcome homelessness to win 15 national championships — discussed the need for more African-American coaches in speech and debate. His talk was like performance art: angry yet funny, a stinging, spellbinding one-man show mixing stage theatrics and historical thought. “In a world where we fear the ignorant, violent black youth, we must have an example of black excellence,” the student declared.
Medina believes passionately that the skills involved in speech and debate — empathy, respect, open-mindedness — are vital in an increasingly close-minded society. “When you live in an echo chamber, you don’t value what other people say,” Medina says. “The number-one thing that I teach my students is to respect other viewpoints — that everyone is entitled to an opinion. They need to see both sides of an issue.” Case in point: Team captain LaKiyah Sain strongly supports criminal justice reform, but at various tournaments she’s argued against it. “It was difficult,” she admits. “But you learn how other people think.”
Medina believes his job is to develop not just good orators and debaters, but strong, productive citizens. His students have become doctors and lawyers, teachers and coaches. And they are grateful for his guidance. “He’s so giving, and that’s something he instills in us,” says Sain, who wants to start a nonprofit for children raised by single parents. “That regardless of personal gain, you should think about others.”
Medina speaks proudly of a student who wanted to join the team but then disappeared for months. “Come to find out, he didn’t think he could do it,” says Medina. “His family told him not to take the scholarship. They didn’t think he could get his degree.” The student became a four-time national champion, and in May 2018, he’ll graduate with a master’s degree from Medina’s alma mater, Minnesota State University.
Over the past two years, 100 percent of Medina’s students have received scholarship offers to graduate school, which is no surprise. Success is part of the legacy.
Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist and the host of 650,000 Hours, an upcoming web series on travel and American heroes.
This article is featured in the July/August 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.