Dating to 1857, the Forensics Union is Illinois State’s oldest registered student organization (RSO). And this school year, the public-speaking and debate group has continued to compete and further its legacy by adapting to the restrictions put in place due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Since helping found the first library, we’ve always been helping the campus grow and evolve,” said Director of Forensics Megan Koch. “Now, we are receiving that support from the rest of the community.”

The Forensics Union is home to Illinois State’s speech and debate teams. Currently sitting at 20 members, the RSO is open to all students. “There are two components to the Forensics Union,” said Koch. “The RSO component is open to all. But to enter a tournament, you must put together events that fit our guidelines. Like track and field, we have various speech and debate events that students specialize and compete in.”

In a typical semester, students travel as far as California to compete in national tournaments. Now, students are competing virtually from classrooms in Fell Hall and Schroeder Hall. 

“Each student gets their own classroom to compete in so that they can close the door and take off their mask,” said Koch. “They wipe everything down when they’re done. Masks are worn around common areas, and we’re maintaining physical distance in between rounds.”

Zoom picture of students competing from their separate classrooms in a district tournament last November.
Students competing from their separate classrooms in a district tournament last November.

Last semester, the speech team competed at a dozen tournaments and placed top three at nearly all of them. Additionally, the debate team qualified all their members for the National Forensics Association (NFA) Nationals in April.

Aside from competition, students in the RSO receive the opportunity to apply their public-speaking skills in a variety of ways. “We have students who work on projects that apply to classes across campus, so they’re often invited to share their research or speeches in the Undergraduate Research Symposium,” said Koch. “We are also very focused on civic engagement and leading the charge on social issues.”

Students take pride in the RSO’s culture of self-expression. “Forensics is not only a way to improve your public-speaking skills, but it also gives you a way to express yourself and talk about what you’re really passionate about,” said Audre Knecht, a junior psychology major from McHenry. “Some of our speeches delve into personal topics, so I think it’s really important for people to use their voices. Joining the Forensics Union gives you a great opportunity to do that.”

The team members form a tight-knit group, which is what attracted the RSO’s president to come to Illinois State from Detroit. “I noticed that the team was very family-focused, competitive, and into advocacy and talking about important topics,” said Mycah Butler, president of the Forensics Union. “That was one of the main things that I was looking for, so that’s why I chose ISU. I joined the Forensics Union immediately my freshman year.”

Even in a semester where socialization is kept to a minimum, new additions to the team fit right in to the family. “I just transferred last semester, and I love being able to share my voice with a community that respects what I have to say,” said Anita Kuchlewski, a junior communication major from Wood Dale. “I think it’s something that’s unlike any other community or activity that people are involved in here. It’s something really special.”

Since the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions, the RSO has attempted to keep its typical traditions intact—via Zoom, of course. They regularly partake in game nights as well as meetings and team-building activities. “Hopefully it feels like nothing ever happened once we return to an in-person setting,” said Kuchlewski.

Despite the differences of this school year, the students’ passion for forensics has proved to be unwavering.

“I’m excited for a lot this semester,” said Sean Porter, a sophomore food nutrition management major from Cary. “Even with everything at a distance, it doesn’t make me any less excited for tournaments and performing. I’ve only fallen in love with speech more with every passing moment.” 

While the RSO has been able to operate smoothly this school year, the members emphasize that credit is due to campuswide support they have received. Koch especially credits School of Communication Director Dr. Stephen Hunt and Interim Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dr. Diane Zosky for their assistance, as well as the Event Review Committee on the coronavirus task force.

“We are very, very lucky to be one of the RSOs that are still functioning right now,” said Butler. “I think it says a lot about our community and what is possible during the pandemic. It has a lot to say about ISU being able to adapt to new challenges.”

Explore opportunities to get involved in Illinois State student organizations at