William & Mary

In debate world, Demsas reigns supreme

  • She's the best
    She's the best  Jerusalem Demsas '17 grew from an unsure freshman debater to the nation's top-ranked debater four years later.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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From the moment she signed up to try out for the William & Mary debate team four years ago, Jerusalem Demsas had second thoughts. She had more interest in debating than confidence that she could actually be good at it.

But Demsas had a friend who used one of the oldest motivational lines in the book to get her to keep her appointment.

“She told me, ‘Jerusalem, it’s 10 minutes of your life. If you bomb it they’re never going to see you again!’" Demsas recalled. "I was like, 'OK, no harm, no foul.'”

So Demsas ’17 went to her tryout. Turned out she was right. She wasn’t very good. But she liked the people involved, she liked the fact that the team itself was strong, and she started attending practices.

“It wound up being the largest part of my college experience,” she said.

Demsas finished the debate season last weekend as the "speaker of the year." That's how the American Parliamentary Debate Association refers to the top-ranked debater in its association, which is the oldest debate association in the country. She is the first black woman to win the award, the second black person to win the award and just the third woman to win the award.

“I’m a very competitive person, and knowing that I wasn’t very good at it was more of a driver than a deterrent,” she said. “I want to go into politics, and a lot of that would have to do with public speaking and being persuasive. The fact I was so bad was an indication that I should be working at it.”

Most people are unaware of the mechanics of an APDA tournament round. Competitors are given seven minutes to talk about a topic of interest to them. As Demsas explained, if a person is interested in education policy, they could present something about how student loans should be interest-free. The opponent, who has no prior knowledge of the other person's topic and position, has the duration of the seven-minute speech to construct a counter argument.

“You have to trust yourself that you can think for the seven minutes they are giving their speech and come up with arguments and ways of thinking about the subject that are different than you are used to,” Demsas said. “A lot of college students tend to think the same about certain topics, so you have to be outside of that mainframe.”

Demsas said that although she loves to compete and winning the speaker of the year is “important” to her, the benefits of being on the W&M debate team extend far beyond competitive success.

“Seeing my thinking evolve over the last four years has been the best part of debate,” she said. “If I were to trade my success for that, I’d do it in a heartbeat because I think it’s going to last with me forever.

“It teaches you ways to think rather than things to think about. William & Mary is an amazing school. The classes I’ve taken and the professors I’ve had have taught me so many different things. But it’s almost impossible to replicate the way you have to be versatile in a debate round. And I think it’s something that even people who don’t do very well in debate rankings-wise are able to get.”