Forrest Sumlar (left) is currently using the skills he obtained while earning a University of Illinois degree in accountancy in the role of Office Manager for the CDC. A graduate and former debater at Morgan Park, Forrest plans to enroll in law school this fall.
My relationship with policy debate began my first day of high school at Morgan Park in 1999. At the time, I was a bit intimidated by the atmosphere and was fortunate enough to have an older brother also attending school at Morgan Park. Since my classes ended earlier than his, he instructed me to go to the debate room and wait for him. I did as he told me.
I walked in, took a seat, and tried to draw as little attention as possible. In an abrupt manner, I hear the coach yell “what are you doing here kid?” In a timid voice, I responded, “Waiting for my brother – he’s a member of this team.” He then responded, in an even more aggressive voice, “If you are going to wait here, you are going to debate!” I glanced out to see the chaotic hallways and decided that my chances were better with the crazy man in the debate room.
Little did I know those fifteen minutes would change the trajectory of my life.
I ended up only debating two tournaments that season, at both of which my partner and I made it to elimination rounds. Despite the apparent natural debate talent, I decided not to debate the next two years as I was a very competitive person and I knew that I would be a step behind the competition by not going to a summer debate institute.
However, I couldn’t stay away from debate. Two of my closest friends at Morgan Park were both members of the debate team. I would often travel with the team to watch them compete. By the end of my junior year, my friends convinced me to make a return to policy debate.
I then spent two weeks of my summer at the Michigan State University Spartan Debate Institute and returned to the Morgan Park debate team the following fall. Unfortunately, only my two friends and the debate coach actually knew who I was, so no one on the team wanted to debate with me. One of my friends ended up having a scheduling conflict with the first tournament, so I lucked out and debated with my other friend. That particular tournament didn’t have elimination rounds, but we ended up going undefeated.
Soon, all of the other debaters except our “super sophs,” Aaron Davis and Clinton McClure, wanted to be my partner. I ended up having quite the debate season, making it to the elimination rounds of every tournament and ending the season with a win at T5, finalist at ISTA JV States with Aaron, and getting closed out in semis of the Chicago Debate Championship.
The realization of how much my time on the debate team affected my life didn’t hit me until college. Soon I realized how much of an advantage I had over my peers in critical thinking, research, and persuasion despite most of them coming from a much more privileged background. As a result, I decided to continue my involvement in the Chicago Debate League as a volunteer coach for Morgan Park and guest lecturer for other CDL teams.
My sophomore year of college, I came across a fellow CDL alum, Chime Asonye, who was absolutely determined to bring policy debate to UIUC but needed a partner in crime. I jumped on board and we spent the next two years seizing every opportunity to meet with UIUC administrators and other influential people in an attempt to gain school funding all the while starting the team as a student organization. The summer of 2006, the Illinois Policy Debate team became UIUC’s official policy debate team and was financially supported by its Honors House and Institute of Government and Public Affairs. That team is still in existence today, albeit less active.
After graduating from U of Illinois with a degree in accountancy, I decided to delay my law school aspirations in an attempt to start a high school debate league in Champaign County. One of my observations during my time at UIUC was that the college population was disconnected from the impoverished communities that surrounded it. Given how much debate shaped who I was, I thought Champaign posed a great opportunity for me to share the benefit of competitive academic debate with a community that could really use it. Unfortunately, the economy took a turn for the worst and it became more difficult to keep schools on board when they were facing substantial budget cuts.
A year after my graduation, I decided to return to Chicago and jump back on the law school track. Fortunately, the Chicago Debate Commission was looking for someone with accounting experience to fill an office manager position and chose me as the person to fill that role. My experience working with the Chicago Debate Commission has been nothing short of great. Under the guidance of Dick Sullivan, Les Lynn, and David Song, I have advanced substantially in my professional career and learned a lot about what it takes to run an organization like the Chicago Debate League.
In addition, the schedule flexibility of the CDC has afforded me the opportunity to work directly with numerous debate programs as a coach. It has been quite interesting to wear the other shoe of the coach-debater relationship. I now know how frustrating it is to have members of the team bail out of tournaments. More importantly, I now know the joy of seeing kids learn and develop their own ideas on race relations, foreign policy, and other subject matters that aren’t even on the radar of their peers. This joy makes my attendance of law school next year all that much more bittersweet as I will likely be forced to step away from coaching and working for the CDC in the same capacity.
Next year, I will be attending law school at an undetermined tier one program (possibly DePaul). Prior to my recent experience in the CDL, I aspired to become a medical malpractice defense litigator. Now, I feel substantially more inclined to spend some portion of my legal career working to combat social inequalities rooted in legal precedence.
With all that said, I simply want to end with thanks to all of the CDL administrators, sponsors, debate coaches, and debaters. My life has been and will continue to be better because of you all.