Faculty and Assistant Debate Director Poapst Found Her Home with #MasonCOMM

by Catherine Wright

Faculty and Assistant Debate Director Poapst Found Her Home with #MasonCOMM

As the Assistant Director of George Mason University’s Debate team since 2016, Jackie Poapst works closely with students from many different majors, including #MasonCOMM students.  While at Mason, she has also been a student herself, earning both her MA in Communication and PhD in Strategic Communication.  In her many roles at Mason, Poapst found her home in the Department of Communication and is excited to be back on campus this fall where she thrives off the energy students bring to everything they do.

In 2012, Poapst arrived at Mason after graduating with her BA in Criminology.  Originally, she came to Mason to start law school, but said “while studying my 1L year, I realized that working with the debate team truly brought me joy and made me skeptical of the ability for the legal arena to achieve true justice.”  The following semester she “transferred to the Mason Communication department for graduate school, and never looked back.” 

Most of Poapst’s work at Mason “focuses on [her] work with the debate team.” She mentioned, “They definitely keep me quite busy. During any given school year, the Mason debate team is traveling around the country about 16 weekends of the year,” traveling by van to places as far away as the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky or the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.  Poapst is extremely proud of the work her teams have accomplished during her nine years at Mason.  There is no doubt that the countless hours she invests in her team members is amply rewarded every year.  “This past season, we ended with the top two teams in the country within the American Debate Association. Our top two varsity teams qualified to the National Debate Tournament (compare that to NCAA basketball's March Madness), and advanced to the elimination rounds...beating teams from Harvard, Georgetown, Baylor, University of Houston, Indiana, Kentucky, the US Naval Academy, and Wyoming to finish as top 18th and 19th individual duo team in the nation. In novice, Mason's top novice team ended as the champion of both novice nationals titles, making them the top novice duo in the country.” 

When not directing teams to National victories, Poapst teaches several different classes, depending on the semester.  Some focus on debate and others focus on persuasion, media theory, and Mason’s Introduction to Communication course.  When asked if she had a favorite class, like her peers, she said it would be difficult to choose.  She has a deep passion for “Communication and Gender.  In this class, we analyze gender, sexuality, and race.  This takes a forefront in my own research, so being able to spend a semester with undergraduate students discussing the ways that gender is communicated was both challenging and rewarding.”  Another class she “quite enjoyed teaching was Argument and Public Policy, as that course is the most similar to the type of research I do for the debate team.”

Poapst thoroughly enjoys teaching undergraduate communication courses.  She said, “Over time, I've realized that you can make anything out of the communication field that you want. I have merged my interests in social justice, the law, and rhetoric and now use my degrees to analyze the ways the legal system justifies policy and procedure that are often unjust for minority groups.”  She continued by saying that “Working with students is the best thing about being a college instructor. I often come away from a class at the end of the semester questioning if I ended up learning more from my students than they learned from me.  The student body that we have in the Communication Department at Mason is top-tier and being able to engage with them every week, discussing complex and contentious issues about the world and how those things are communicated to publics, are often the favorite moments of my days at Mason.” 

One of her biggest challenges she faced teaching is born from her experiences as a first-generation college student.  She feels this “created a lot of challenges in graduate school and when I first started teaching.  I did not have the background on support that a lot of students may have to turn to when things got difficult. I feel that being a first-gen also means that you are hard-wired to feel a significant amount of imposter syndrome. Overcoming that and realizing I can turn to other faculty members and friends I met in my graduate cohort for advice along the way took a lot of time to reach.”

Now confident in her approaches to research, teaching, and guiding her teams to success, Poapst is excited about a new debate initiative on campus.  She hopes “people would like to get involved this year. We are starting an on-campus debate society for undergraduate and graduate students who may not be interested in doing the intercollegiate national travel that our debate team requires but who do want to be civically involved in democratic dialogue and discussion with other students on campus.”  Getting involved in civic and political dialogue on campus is a great prep for law school, and can also be helpful for students who are interested in improving their public speaking skills! Anyone interested is encouraged to reach out at jpoapst@gmu.edu.

Poapst believes her comment “will probably sound cliche,” but the thing she noticed first about Mason were the people. Coming from a smaller undergraduate campus, she was pleased to discover that “despite how large of a population Mason is, campus has never felt like that when I arrive. There is something unique about the atmosphere, and I can only believe it is because of the people here. They make a large university feel like a tight knit community.” 

When not leading her teams to victory, engaging with students in class, or developing campus-wide initiatives, you can find Poapst “playing on my weekly dodgeball or kickball team, at a trivia game with my trivia team (the Trivia Doctor$), reading a fantasy novel, or watching a sub-titled Chinese historical drama on Viki.” 

She is very excited about what the future has to bring, both for Mason and herself.  She found giving one piece of advice to graduating students tough because she’s learned so many things from her experiences.  In the end, Poapst decided that it is important for students to “apply everywhere. Take any interview that comes your way. But, beyond that work-based advice, find your non-work passions. Keep in contact with friends, no matter where your life takes you. Stay in tune with your emotional and mental health. And finally, never forget where you come from. This is particularly directed at you first-generation students. Your background is not a hindrance, it makes you unique. You bring insight to the table that many others do not bring. Never forget that.”