Newswise — When Miriam Pierson ’18 and Nathaniel Urban ’18 heard their topic — the filibustering of Supreme Court nominees — for the finals of the Stanford Debate Tournament, they smiled. Some of their friends burst out laughing.

“Nate and I are known for knowing a lot about American politics,” explains Pierson, an Honors economics and political science major from Arlington, Va.

“We’re both passionate about politics and have worked for a number of Democratic campaigns,” adds Urban, an honors political science major from Westtown, Pa. “So, this was a lot of fun.”

The duo defeated a team from Yale to claim the tournament earlier this month— the biggest win for Swarthmore’s Amos J. Peaslee Debate Society in more than 15 years, says Urban. Pierson was also named top debater at the tournament, which draws top teams from across the country each year.

Following the win, the Swarthmore team of 20 is ranked as the 10th best in the country. Pierson and Urban are ranked seventh best duo, and Pierson 10th best individual. Both students are also qualified to compete in the national championships in April.

Pierson says she and Urban were “fairly nervous” coming into the tournament, which pitted them against six of the top 10 teams and more than half of the top 20 ranked debaters in the country. But the duo went 5-0 in the preliminary rounds, then beat teams from Yale, Brown, and University of Chicago to reach the finals.

“Anytime you’re debating in a high-stakes round or in front of a lot of people, it’s a balance of wanting to channel adrenaline and to stay focused, because small things can be big strategic mistakes,” says Urban. “But there’s always a little bit of excitement that can start to creep in as the round progresses, if you think you’re winning.”

The tournament win established Swarthmore’s reputations as one of the best teams in the U.S., says Pierson, and assured a top-10 ranking for the year.

It's quite the accomplishment for Pierson, who would get so nervous in her early days of debating that she would shake, and Urban, who had no debate or public speaking experience through his freshman year at Swarthmore.

“Debate has increased my confidence and helped me overcome performance anxiety,” Pierson says. “At Swarthmore, it has allowed me to use what I learn in class to start conversations with some of the smartest young people in the country about issues I’m passionate about.

“It has also pushed me to develop a broad base of knowledge about everything from pop culture to history to global affairs,” she adds, “helping me get a true liberal arts education.” 

The roots of the Amos J. Peaslee Debate Society extend back to the Eunomian Literary Society, which students formed in 1871 soon after the College's founding. Member Amos J. Peaslee, Class of 1907, a lawyer who later served as the U.S. ambassador to Australia and was awarded an honorary degree from Swarthmore in 1955, bequeathed a substantial gift in 1969 to the group, which changed its name in his honor. The society has won numerous awards over the years, including in 1987 when Josh Davis '87 and Reid Neureiter '87 teamed up to take second place at the World Debating Championships, becoming the second American team to reach the world championships finals.