Debate Domination

After University hosts regional tournament, Suffolk team advances to win JV National Championship
Juliette Salah and Will Woodring smile as they sit with their laptops open in the library
Juliette Salah, Class of 2027, and Will Woodring, Class of 2024, prepared for a match-up during the CEDA Northeast Regional Championship Novice and JV tournament at Suffolk this February.

Every Boston sports fan knows what it means when they hear the opening chords of “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by Celtic punk band the Dropkick Murphys: Our team is here to play, and they’ve come to win. So that’s what Suffolk University junior varsity debaters Juliette Salah and Will Woodring blasted on their portable speaker to set the tone as they arrived at this year’s Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) junior varsity/novice national championship tournament in West Virginia.

“I’m a firm believer that playing music before debates and putting yourself in a stress-free mood helps,” says Salah, a first-year student majoring in politics, philosophy, and economics (PPE). 

Their strategy paid off. When Woodring and Salah faced off against a talented team from the US Naval Academy in the weekend’s championship debate—the only ones to beat them in the previous 15 rounds of national and regional competition—Salah emerged as the top speaker of the tournament and the pair took home the national title. 

Suffolk’s novice team shone, as well, with Cara Wong, a Class of 2024 PPE major, and Juliette Ludka, a Class of 2027 philosophy major, making it to the “Sweet 16” round, finishing ninth in the nation out of 32 teams. Wong was named third-best novice speaker (out of 64 debaters), with Ludka close behind in seventh.

Capping off this championship season was news that the team won CEDA’s National Public Debate Award for their achievements, and for work that Coach Frank Irizarry did with the National Prison Debate League. “Considering there are over 150 CEDA member schools across the nation, it’s really nice to receive this level of recognition in only our second year,” said Irizarry. 

Coach Frank Irizarry stands behind his seated student debaters as they pose with several debate competition awards
Coach Frank Irizarry’s students Cara Wong, Juliette Salah, Will Woodring, and David Rivera show off some of their debate awards from this season of competition, including Salah and Woodring’s JV National Championship win 

Like most great sports stories, this one is a bit of an underdog tale. Two years ago there was no Suffolk team at the national championship tournament. In fact, there was no Suffolk team. Before the current Suffolk policy debate team’s formation in fall 2022, the last time Suffolk fielded a team or hosted a tournament was back in 1991. 

Current Suffolk Debate Director and Advertising, Public Relations & Social Media Professor Irizarry remembers that last tournament on campus well—he was a competitor, earning top speaker honors while a sophomore at Marist College. This winter he oversaw the return of college policy debate to Suffolk’s campus as the University hosted the CEDA Northeast Regional Championship Novice and JV tournament in February. Irizarry watched with pride as his novice and JV debaters grew in skill and confidence, notched wins, and earned the right to advance to the nationals. 

“Last year, in our first year back, our novices won the regional championship, and we were elated to be able to do that in our first season. To follow that up with a junior varsity regional and national championship in our second year is beyond where I believed the program could be in such a short period of time,” says Irizarry. 

David Rivera leans in to whisper to his debate partner, Marcela De Souza, during a round
Marcela De Souza, Class of 2027, strategizes with her debate partner David Rivera, Class of 2026, during the Spanish-language tournament they planned on campus. The pair, who were teammates in the Boston Debate League’s Spanish division in high school, reunited to compete this year when De Souza joined Rivera as a student at Suffolk.

A first-ever intercollegiate Spanish-language competition

Suffolk’s debate program also broke new ground by holding CEDA’s first-ever intercollegiate Spanish-language policy debate tournament. 

David Rivera, a Class of 2026 marketing major, found a supportive community in the Boston Debate League’s (BDL) Spanish division when he came to the US from El Salvador in high school. Frustrated by the absence of college-level policy debate opportunities in the US, he decided to start a Spanish-language division this year. 

Irizarry lent his full support and guidance, suggesting that the inaugural tournament take place during the CEDA Regionals on campus. That helped with some logistics, says Rivera, but also meant abiding by CEDA rules, including requiring the Spanish debaters to use the same evidence case documents as the English-language division. 

“We had to translate around 600 pages of evidence,” says Rivera, who worked with his former BDL partner Marcela De Souza, now a first-year criminal justice and Spanish double major at Suffolk, to prepare all the materials and recruit experienced debaters, largely through their BDL alumni network. 

With debaters still confirming the night before the tournament, Rivera and De Souza managed to cobble together the four teams required for the competition, with students from Suffolk, the University of Rochester, Pomona College, Northeastern University, and Salem State University appearing on campus and virtually. Irizarry says video of the debate he’s shared with other colleges has sparked interest, with one considering hosting a Spanish-language division at their tournament next year, too. 

The hard work was worth it, says Rivera.

“At the end of the day, it was not just debating. It was [creating] a space where we get to connect with each other within a community,” he says. “These kinds of spaces, such as college or debate, can feel like they are not meant for us, or are not as accessible for us as for other communities. So regardless of if we win or lose, as a community we are gaining a space that we are building from scratch, a place where we belong.”

David Rivera speaks at a podium during a debate in Suffolk's Sargent Hall
Marketing major David Rivera, Class of 2026, hopes this year’s Spanish-language tournament was the first of many. “This chance to compete and connect with one another was so important to the Suffolk Debate Team and to the Hispanic debate community. We hope this one tournament leads to an established division across the country in the future."

Building a supportive community

For Salah, who lived in France, China, Michigan, and Georgia before arriving in Boston, debate has also provided a stable and welcoming community. A former high school champion and current judge, Salah only intended to help the Suffolk team prepare for competition this year. But when her friend, Woodring, wanted to build on a successful year of novice competition by moving into the JV tier for his senior year, she came out of retirement to be his partner. 

Although the debate world is small and tight-knit, Salah says the Suffolk team has been welcomed with open arms, even though “no one saw it coming” when she and Woodring, a competitor with no college record and a former novice respectively, took top spots at regionals and nationals. 

With Woodring graduating, Salah says she needs a seasoned partner to move into the varsity division if she’s going to stay out of retirement to compete again next year. Luckily, Suffolk recently announced two new scholarship opportunities that could help make that happen—and strengthen the nascent Spanish division, too. Each spring, the University will award two full-tuition scholarships, one each to an English-language and Spanish-language debater from the Boston Debate League. 

“At Suffolk University, we are building a community around debate that includes our BDL partners, and more recently, our own University debate team,” says Suffolk University President Marisa Kelly. “We understand the power of debate in building critical thinking, communication, and leadership skills, as well as a sense of community and pathways to success for students. These scholarships will support BDL debaters as they pursue their own pathways and further their journeys with debate.”

Students stand against a brick wall on either side of their debate coach, Professor Frank Irizarry
Suffolk debaters, from left to right, Jesse Blank, Juliette Salah, Will Woodring, Coach Professor Frank Irizarry, Juliette Ludka, Cara Wong, and Gerard Gendall at the JV/Novice National Championship in West Virginia


Greg Gatlin
Office of Public Affairs

Andrea Grant
Office of Public Affairs