Forensics team Coordinator Denise Thomas pushes her team members to use their voices for good

Denise Thomas is many things. To her family, a wife and a mother. To Liberty University, an alumni, professor and coordinator. But to her forensic speech team members, she is an encourager.

Thomas grew up in North Carolina and had her first experience at Liberty as an undergraduate student fresh out of high school. During college, she pursued a double major in theater and counseling and met her husband John, a graduate student at the time. 

After completing their degrees they married and moved to Florida in order to pursue their careers. But Thomas had no idea she would eventually end up back at Liberty University.

The years previous to her return to Lynchburg consisted of a lot of moving around, first to Florida where her husband began his private practice as a counselor, then to South Carolina and then back to the state of Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. 

During her time in the Shenandoah Valley, she worked as a high school drama teacher and coached her students for fine arts competitions. Part of that position included teaching competitive speech, preparing her for the role she would one day step into when she came to Liberty.

When Thomas and her husband finally returned to Liberty University in 2004, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in communication. 

“As I was finishing that (master’s degree) up, I became aware of the forensics team here (at Liberty),” Thomas said. “I started working with them in 2014 and became the coordinator in 2015.”

According to its official Facebook page, the forensics speech team at Liberty University is an intercollegiate speech team dedicated to telling stories that matter. As the team’s coordinator, Thomas is in charge of the one-on-one instruction and coaching of each team member. 

She also prepares them, both individually and as a team, to compete with other schools. This team is made up of students from all majors, Thomas said, and no audition is required in order to be a part of it.

“My thought is, ‘If someone wants to give it a try, it’s my responsibility to help them,’” Thomas said. “If it’s not for them, they’ll figure that out.”

Her undergraduate degree in theater helped Thomas develop a passion for the spoken word, which has now translated into her role as the coordinator for the team. Thomas is convinced that in telling stories, individuals gain a platform to speak about different topics and make a difference in the world.

“The spoken word is so powerful,” Thomas said. “Telling stories or advocating for issues about which you are passionate is so moving. That’s how we influence people.”

Thomas said that she loves seeing students find this opportunity. One of her main goals in leading the team is helping each student refine his or her ability to touch people through words. 

Besides coaching, Thomas is also in charge of going to competitions with the team and managing its budget, but according to the students she does much more than just fulfill those duties. Though she constantly challenges her students to improve, senior Elyse Shelburne said Thomas also cares for each student’s personal well-being, constantly encouraging her students. 

“I always felt comfortable presenting my pieces for her, however unpolished,” Shelburne said, “because I knew they would be met with her sincere encouragement and helpful critique. Forensics is a safe place for ideas, discussion and connection, and Denise Thomas is a foundational part of this unique community.”

Thomas serves on the board of the National Christian College Forensics Association, giving her the opportunity to interact with coaches from other faith-based schools. When the communications department needs her, she also teaches some college courses such as speech communication and persuasion.

As coordinator, Thomas has led the team to victory many times. According to her, there have seldom been competitions in which the team has not come back with some award. Although Thomas has seen the team grow in the last couple of years, she would love to see the program grow further. 

One of the ways she would like to see this happen is by having the team potentially offer scholarships to its members. She believes that students who are representing the university in competition should be provided an avenue to help pay for their education. Overall, Thomas’ ultimate desire is to walk alongside students as they learn to use their voice.

“I want students, not just on our team but on campus, to find their voice and their platform for reaching people with messages they believe are important,” Thomas said. 

Elias is a feature reporter.

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