As a high school sophomore, James Hilbert ’11 (West Whippany, N.J.) joined the debate team as a way to explore his interest in becoming a trial lawyer. He’s since changed career aspirations and is a mechanical engineering and mathematics double major, but he caught the bug for debate and hasn’t looked back. This year, he’s had unprecedented success, winning seven tournaments in a row.
“When I chose where to go to college, debate was not a big part of my decision,” explains Hilbert. “Looking back, I’m extremely glad I ended up at a school with such a great forensics team. I have certainly improved since coming to Lafayette due to the excellent coaching I’ve received. As a team, we work together to make sure everyone is fully prepared for tournaments. Being part of a strong team allows us to practice and research together to help one another and stay motivated.”
Last year, Lafayette’s Forensics Society took second place in both the debate and Division III speech portions of the National Forensics Association’s national tournament. Hilbert was a big part of that success, finishing second in the nation in debate.
John Boyer, director of debate and assistant director of forensics, calls Hilbert the “best debater I have ever coached” and a fixture in the debate office.
“The seven tournaments he won in a row this year are just a reward for the years of work James has dedicated,” he says. “In a debate round, the opponent is pressuring you with arguments and you have to come up with your own arguments quickly. James is extremely good at managing the arguments and finding a way to win. I can remember many instances where I have explained a new argument to him immediately prior to a debate round, only to have James use that argument to win that very debate.”
Hilbert says he has honed his analytical skills through his majors, which are not often associated with debate. He also has seen an improvement in his writing, speech, and research skills as a result of his forensics experience.
“The majors are certainly unusual for someone in forensics,” says Hilbert, who has been accepted to several Ph.D. programs and is still deciding where to attend. “I think engineering, math, and debate all require strong logic and critical thinking skills to succeed, so there are benefits that carry over from my academics to debate.”
Hilbert admits he wasn’t the strongest debate student when he first joined Forensics Society and credits Boyer and his teammates with helping him improve.
“The forensics team has become one of the largest parts of my college experience,” he says. “I’ve received tons of help and support from our debate coach, John Boyer, as well as from my friends on the team, who motivate me and push me to keep working to improve. After an extremely successful end to last year, I realized I had a chance to be one of the best competitors in the nation this year, which motivated me to work even harder to succeed.”
Boyer says Hilbert doesn’t just focus on himself. The only senior on the team, he is its de facto leader and is helping develop the next generation of debaters to ensure the team’s continued success. Hard work is critical.
“I have enjoyed being a part of transforming the team into one of the most dominant debate teams in the nation. In my second and third years, we finished ninth place as a team at nationals. In my fourth year, we finished fifth, and last year, second,” says Boyer. “The success comes from the students’ hard work and preparation. Our debaters are some of the most well-researched and prepared in the nation. James leads by example and is showing the new crop of debaters how much value there is in hard work, organization, and focus.”
The College will host the Lafayette Spring Six tournament Saturday, April 2, which will be Hilbert’s last warm-up before the National Forensic Association national tournament April 14-18 at Illinois State University.