Mercer debate team wins Novice Nationals for fifth time

members of the debate team hold plaques
Members of the Mercer debate team, from left, are: Niyati Patel, Thomas Bartlett, Jayla Owens, Associate Director of Debate Fiker Tesfaye, Chirayu Salgarkar and Director of Debate Dr. Vasile Stănescu. Photo by Leah Yetter

MACON — Mercer University’s debate team won the Novice Nationals for the fifth time in the National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA). 

Mercer has now won this award more than any other college or university that participates in the NPDA. Additionally, there have been six Black debaters to win the Novice Nationals, and all of them have been from Mercer. 

The tournament took place from March 25-27 at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. 

“This victory represents, in a microcosm, Mercer’s universitywide commitment to both student excellence and diversity. With this victory, Mercer has now won nationals in novice more than any other college or university in the history of debate — more than UC Berkeley, more than Rice University, more than UCLA, more than anyone,” said Dr. Vasile Stănescu, associate professor of communication studies and director of debate. “And, Mercer has won the award with the most diverse students. The reason I coach debate is because — uniquely — we can tell every student, ‘Come to Mercer, and you can be the best in the nation.’ I am deeply grateful to our impressive coaching staff and dedicated students who made this historic win possible.” 

The students who competed this year were freshmen Jayla Owens and Thomas Bartlett. 

“Debate has taught and exposed me to information and experiences that I could never obtain in a classroom. Each practice, personal session and round is a learning experience that I am grateful for,” said Owens, a biology major. “I am also grateful for the amazing people I get to spend time with doing debate and the amazing coaches that I have to guide me through this activity.” 

Barlett, who is double-majoring in global development studies and Spanish, said, “Mercer debate has given me a place where I am challenged to be the best version of myself but also supported along the way. It is a wonderful, tight knit community that I am so happy to be a part of.” 

Dr. Stănescu was one of three coaches who helped with the team this year, in addition to Associate Director of Debate Fiker Tesfaye and alumnus Cam Wade.  

Wade is a former Mercer debater who now attends the University of Chicago. During his time at Mercer, he won the James ‘Al’ Johnson Top Speaker Award, the highest individual honor presented at the NPDA championship.  

Before joining the University, Tesfaye, a lecturer of communication studies, also won the James ‘Al’ Johnson Top Speaker Award. 

“This year with the team has been one of growth, dedication and passion. Every debater has shown they want to be here and shown they have what it takes to not only survive but thrive,” Tesfaye said. “After just the one year I have been here, there has been such tremendous progress, and this is just the beginning of what I know these debaters are capable of. And if just a few months of training look like this, I can only imagine the years to come.” 

About the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences 

Mercer University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences serves as the academic cornerstone of one of America’s oldest and most distinctive institutions of higher learning. The oldest and largest of Mercer’s 12 schools and colleges, it is a diverse and vibrant community, enrolling more than 1,900 students, dedicated to learning and service through the practice of intellectual curiosity, respectful dialogue and responsible citizenry. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offers majors in more than 30 areas of study, including more than a dozen pre-professional academic tracks, with classes taught by an outstanding faculty of scholars. In 2015, Mercer was awarded a chapter of The Phi Beta Kappa Society, the nation’s most prestigious academic honor society that recognizes exceptional achievement in the arts and sciences. For more information, visit