“Chemeketa Community College goes up against the University of Washington.”
“Chemeketa Community College faces Oregon State University.”
“Chemeketa Community College will square off with the University of Oregon.”
A community college in any sort of competition with large, prominent universities of the Northwest is not common. But a group of Chemeketa students have been doing just that and have been holding their own against their university counterparts.
Meet the mock trial team of Chemeketa Community College.
“They’re the underdogs, and they know it,” said Maria Cruse, a political science instructor at Chemeketa and the team’s adviser.
Underdogs still have their days. At the Emerald City Open tournament in early December, Chemeketa received judging victories against teams from Oregon State University and the University of Washington and finished ahead of OSU and University Of Oregon teams in the final standings.
“It definitely puts us in a position where we feel we need to work that much harder to earn the respect of the judges and the other teams,” student Trey Dean of Keizer said. “When it comes down to competition, we hold our heads high and do our best and know we’re at the same level as our university competitors.”
The team showed off their skills to the Chemeketa community during a showcase in the Salem campus auditorium on Jan. 28, a warm-up for the spring national championship season. The team’s regional tournament is scheduled for Feb. 7 & 8 in Boise.
This is the second year of Chemeketa’s mock trial team, birthed out of Cruse’s background as an attorney and what she saw as a need for students taking her courses.
“My idea behind it was I saw students that were exceptionally bright and wanting some kind of extra activity to challenge themselves outside of class,” Cruse said.
In the case of many of those students, including team captain Jesse Thompson of Silverton, participating in mock trial was a completely unplanned experience.
“When I came to school, I came to school because I had nothing to do,” Thompson said. “Then I go to my first class, political science, and Maria Cruse started to bring up these ideas of mock trial and things beyond just school and why you should be in school.”
Delia Rivera, who came to Chemeketa from Southern California, wound up on the team after she walked into the wrong classroom.
“So I just told myself, ‘you know what, let’s try it out one day and see how it goes’,” she said. “And I actually liked it, so I stuck around.”
Mock trial teams at the community college level are extremely rare. Cruse noted Chemeketa is the only community college with a team in the American Mock Trial Association’s local region, which includes northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Utah.
Part of the reason for that is simply a matter of the amount of time students are in school compared to universities. Cruse notes teams from four-year schools often have junior and senior students competing, putting Chemeketa at a regular experience disadvantage and having to learn the policy and procedure aspects of mock trial competition in a tighter time frame.
Thompson literally started from scratch last year.
“I remember not even knowing where to begin, like ‘what do I read first?’ None of it made any sense, “ Thompson said. “I hardly knew the difference between defense and prosecution.”
Dean of Social Sciences R. Taylor said another challenge the Chemeketa team faces is the time demands on the team outside of school.
“Many of them have to work, sometimes even more than one job, to support themselves and pay for school,” Taylor said.
Competition is rigorous, and begins in August, when the case students will be using in competitions for the year comes out. The case consists of over 130 pages of documentation and depositions that student will spend months pouring over.
The team spends hours developing theories to be able to prove each side of the case. That’s important, since competitions consist of multiple rounds of head-to-head competition against other schools where the students will take on the roles of both plaintiff and defendant, developing questions for examination, cross-examination and acting as witnesses.
“You have to know your affidavit,” Cruse said. “You have to be able to articulate your team’s position. You have to stay with your team’s theory.”
Thompson said the team meets as a whole or in smaller groups at least four times a week, for several hours at a time. Preparation close to a tournament can include all-day meetings.
“It’s a little more than a part-time job, sometimes,” Thompson said.
But after competition day, Cruse points out, there are important skills students take out of mock trial. These include public speaking and critical thinking. Students are also choosing to stay at Chemeketa to complete their associate’s degrees instead of transferring early to a university, she said.
Dean called mock trial “practice for life”.
“It’s definitely helped increased my active listening skills,” he said. “It also really highlighted my weaknesses as well. I’ve learned areas to put more focus on to become a more successful student.”
College administration have also been strong backers of the team. Taylor traveled up to Seattle to watch the team compete. Executive Dean David Hallett, who like Cruse comes from a law background, said during the showcase having Chemeketa compete in mock trial with the largest universities in the Northwest is a privilege and honor.
“I have deep love and respect for what our students are doing here,” Hallett said. “It means a lot to me personally.”
Personal meaning is seen in Thompson, as competing in mock trial has changed his educational path. He started at Chemeketa without a major and simply wanting to maintain the minimum grades to keep his financial aid, but now wants to either pursue a Ph.D in political science or attend law school.
“It changed every reason why I was in school, let alone where I was going,” he said. “It gave me direction.”