Mercer Debater Cam Wade Wins James ‘Al’ Johnson Top Speaker Award at Nationals

Wade and Thompson

Accolades Also Include Top Team, Top-Three Individual Speakers in Novice Division

Cam Wade
Cam Wade

MACON – Mercer University junior Cam Wade won the James “Al” Johnson Top Speaker Award, the highest individual honor presented at the National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) championship, held virtually March 6-8.

“Cam is known for being a charismatic and friendly debater who transcends the technical and gets to the most important issues with unique clarity and insight. He is exactly the kind of debater the award ought to be recognizing,” said Dr. David Worth, director of the George R. Brown Forensics Society at Rice University and president of NPDA.

Wade, a women’s and gender studies and English double-major from Savannah, is the first African-American male to be named top speaker at the nation’s largest parliamentary debate tournament and is the second Mercer student to win the James “Al” Johnson Award since 2015.

“I am honestly shocked. I never thought I would be the top speaker in the NPDA,” said Wade. “It’s surreal.”

Wade outranked more than 100 fellow debaters from across 11 states representing top programs such as UC Berkeley, UCLA, Rice, Whitman, Georgetown, the University of Oregon and many others.

“In his first year ever debating, Cam won the Dan Henning Award as the top novice debater in the nation. In his second, he won the James ‘Al’ Johnson Award as the top varsity speaker,” said Dr. Vasile Stanescu, associate professor of communication and director of debate. “This is a remarkable victory and reflects not only great talent but months of hard work.”

Matt Thompson
Matt Thompson

Mercer swept individual honors at this year’s nationals, also taking home the Dan Henning Award for top novice speaker. Freshman Matt Thompson, a chemical commerce and French double-major from Canton, won the award, which was presented to his debate partner Wade in 2020 and teammate Yasmeen Hill in 2019.

As a team, Wade and Thompson reached the octofinals round of the varsity division.

Additionally, sophomores Ashley Pemberton, journalism and media studies double-major from Macon, and Madeline Smith, biochemistry and molecular biology (BMB) and Spanish double-major from Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, won the novice division and were named second- and third-place speakers among novices, giving Mercer the top-three individuals in the division.

“This was a bit of a ‘clean sweep’ for Mercer and is a win that truly belongs to the University as a whole,” said Dr. Stanescu. “Debate is a public thinking event as much as it is a public speaking event. What these victories underscore is the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences continues to train some of the finest undergraduate minds in the entire nation.”

Dr. Stanescu was assisted in his coaching duties by former Mercer debaters Jaz Buckley, a current law student at UCLA who won the James “Al” Johnson Top Speaker Award in 2015, as well as Dr. Cameron Kunzelman, who serves as coordinator of fellowship and scholarships at Mercer, and Sophia Maier, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in communications at Penn State.

“I couldn’t have gotten to this point without people like Vas, Cameron, Jaz, and even my other teammates like Madeline, Ashley, Yasmeen and Cameron Dawkins,” said Wade. “Most importantly, though, I want to thank my partner, Matt. I literally wouldn’t have been able to get this award if Matt hadn’t agreed to debate with me through this second semester. Even when we’re both confused as to what might be happening in a round and having massive headaches by the end of it, he’s always having a good attitude and encouraging me to just say whatever needs to be said. I get to talk about what I want to talk about in the debate round because of him, so I’m thankful for the opportunity to debate with him.”

“I am so proud of Cam Wade for winning the prestigious top speaker award, as well as the entire debate team for its significant accomplishments at the national debate tournament,” said Dr. Anita Olson Gustafson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “By winning the top novice speaker award, Matt Thompson becomes the third Mercer winner in three years. That Ashley Pemberton and Madeline Smith placed second and third among novice speakers and won the team event in the novice division shows the depth of our team. What is particularly noteworthy is that all of these students represent majors and minors from across the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, reflecting the broad interests of our students and their excellent preparation for this national tournament.”

Parliamentary debate features two teams of two students debating one another on relevant topics of national or international interest. One team, called the “government,” affirms a given resolution, while the other team, called the “opposition,” refutes it. The four speakers alternate in presenting their arguments, based on their existing knowledge as well as 25 minutes of research done just prior to the debate.

NPDA is the largest intercollegiate organization for debate in the United States, with between 200-250 colleges and universities participating throughout the year.

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