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story.lead_photo.caption Leia Smith, a Cabot High School graduate and a senior at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, displays the plaque and silver trays she received from the International Public Debate Association at a tournament in Spokane, Wash. She won two national honors as season-long professional-division debate and speaking champion for 2017-2018. - Photo by William Harvey

University of Central Arkansas senior Leia Smith’s gift of gab has garnered her two national debate championships.

A 2014 graduate of Cabot High School, she was lauded earlier this month by the International Public Debate Association at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. She won the 2017-2018

season-long professional-division debate and speaking categories.

Suffice it to say the loquacious 22-year-old loves lexicon. She will graduate in May with a degree in communications and public relations. She’s already the development coordinator for the Children’s Advocacy Alliance in Conway.

When she came to UCA, she didn’t have a goal.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. All I knew is that I was good at talking; I was good at communicating with people, and I liked people,” she said.

In high school, she was in forensics from seventh grade until she graduated. That was more theater and interpretation events, she said.

“It was competing in a manner of more so content and presentation — you’re not saying, ‘You’re wrong.’ You’re not going to talk about government and increase in taxes against another person,” she said. “I did not debate until my freshman year of college.”

She did, however, participate in one debate tournament in high school.

“I don’t count it as debating because I was awful,” she said.

Not too awful. She made it through the elimination rounds, and Anthony McMullen, the UCA debate-team coach, recruited her. McMullen offered her a scholarship to attend UCA, and she accepted.

Smith said her high school forensics teacher prepared her well.

“Jane Morgan Balgavy was my coach for most of my high school career,” Smith said. “She is the single most kindhearted human I’ve ever met. Whenever I help with freshmen debaters, I feel like I’m regurgitating things Balgavy taught me in high school and junior high. She is the most influential teacher I’ve ever had in my life.”

Balgavy retired in 2013 from Cabot High School, but she is back in the district teaching oral communications to ninth-graders in the freshman academy in the school district.

“She is incredible,” Balgavy said of Smith. “The fact is, she was never a debater for me in high school; she was strictly forensics.”

Debating is about speaking and, “Boy, she’s a top-notch speaker,” Balgavy said.

She said Smith will excel in debating for two main reasons.

“The first thing that Leia has is intrinsic motivation; she doesn’t need someone standing over her. … The second quality — I teach gifted ed — Leia is one of those unique students who knows her giftedness but also really challenges herself to learn what it is she doesn’t know.”

Balgavy said she thought Smith might cross over to debate when she got to college, because debate “is where the meat is.”

When she heard Smith was participating in debate at UCA, “I thought, ‘Boy, howdy,’” Balgavy said, laughing.

Smith started as a novice debater, but then she stayed out a semester to teach at a Montessori day care in a class of 2- to 6-year-olds as part of an independent-study program.

During that time, she continued to participate in debates on the weekends to keep her scholarship, but she had to jump up to the professional level.

“I went from less educated debaters to most experienced,” she said. That level includes debate coaches and lawyers, she said.

“I was terrified my first tournament,” she said. It was at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

“You get 30 minutes to prepare for each round,” Smith said. “I think I spent 20 of the 30 minutes crying, I was so stressed out.”

Debaters don’t know the topic until they find out who they are “hitting,” or debating. The participant has 30 minutes to research, write and go to a round.

She made it to the quarterfinals in that first professional debate and was in the top eight.

“I was pretty happy; I was shocked more than anything,” she said. “Anthony realized I was better suited for the professional level, so I never left.”

The next tournament, she faced Trey Gibson, an instructor at Louisiana State University and the co-founder of the International Public Debate Association. Smith said she sat and stared at her computer, worried that she’d say the wrong thing.

“It was the best debate round I’d ever had in my life,” she said. The topic was free trade versus fair trade, and she argued in favor of free trade.

“Usually, I don’t remember details of a round — you have up to 10 rounds that you do as an individual,” she said. “That was probably one of my most memorable rounds; I was debating the person who created the debate format I was participating in.”

Who won?

“I don’t remember; I didn’t check,” she said. “I don’t ever read my ballots after a round and tally up what I lost and what I won … just because it’s done, and it’s over.”

Smith said she just reads the notes on what she can do to improve.

Not all the debate topics are heavy.

“You can debate pancakes are better than waffles,” she said. That was her debate topic. “I was definitely on team waffle.

“I’ve debated about plants. I’ve debated about the legalization of anything you can possibly think of, sports teams to Beyoncé to United States government relations,” she said.

Her recent honors reflect debating and speaking skills.

“Top speaker in the nation is reflecting how well you speak, how charismatic you are … how courteous you are in a round — and how appealing your words and your vernacular are. Debate rank reflects who won the round. You can win the round and have lost the speaks,” she said.

Smith is not just a student; she’s the development coordinator for the Children’s Advocacy Alliance in Conway. She started working at the alliance in February 2015 as a volunteer/intern.

The alliance is an umbrella organization for Court Appointed Special Advocates and the Children’s Advocacy Center in Conway, which offers a place for interviews, therapy and medical exams for children who are suspected to be abused or neglected.

She had stopped working at the Montessori school and started back to UCA.

“I said, ‘Well, I’ve got all this time to fill,’”Smith said. “I went and volunteered at 10 different nonprofits around central Arkansas, and [the Children’s Advocacy Alliance] is the one that stuck. As soon as I walked into the [advocacy] center, I figured I would stay here, at least as an intern.

“I just kind of did whatever they needed. I checked kiddos in at our center. I helped with paperwork, did resource assessments. I painted giant plywood boards with chalk paint for kids to draw on, just random things.”

After three months, she was offered an internship with CASA. Smith also worked for Faulkner County Judge Jim Baker part of the time.

She started part time in 2016 with the alliance, and in July 2017, she became the part-time marketing and outreach coordinator.

“It’s the perfect fit because my job is to go out into the community and talk and do trainings and plan events,” she said.

In March, she became full-time development coordinator. She said the position encompasses everything she did in outreach and marketing.

“I do the fundraising, go talk to sponsors. I’m certified to train people as stewards of children,” Smith said. The curriculum she teaches includes how to properly respond to, detect and report child abuse.

Her talent for talking and communicating serves her well in her position.

“I feel like there’s no better way to impact your community than to conversate with your community and to help those without a voice,” Smith said. “I think debate has allowed me to have a voice that’s trainable. I can make my voice sound better and maybe be a little bit louder. I think debate has helped me find the voice of other people as well. I can’t think of a better group of people who don’t have a voice of their own other than abused

children and foster children.

“It’s more than a job for me; it’s the advocacy I want to talk about the rest of my life.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or

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