MavForensics director heads award-winning program, gains inspiration from process

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Photo Courtesy of Juli Oberlander

Juli Oberlander

Abbie Syrek’s office in the Arts and Sciences Building has bookshelves covered with pictures of her forensics debate team members over the years.

Syrek has coached many teams where students have won trophies, national and All-American awards. Yet, for Syrek, it is not about the trophies. It’s the people that give her job meaning.

Syrek, a public speaking teacher and the MavForensics director at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, has been heading the program since 2006. In that time, the forensics team has been a top 10 program for eight years and has won the state championship the past two years.

However, when Syrek was in high school, she says she did not plan on joining a forensics team, let alone coaching one. Only when she was approached by her high school speech coach to join the debate team did she consider it to be a component of a future career.

Syrek says she didn’t want to join at first because she wanted to be “defiant.” She later changed her mind and found herself drawn to communication studies.

“It was a natural fit,” Syrek says. “I love teaching public speaking.

“I think it is so much fun to teach other people how to feel powerful with themselves and define their own niche,” she continues. “Everyone has a different strength and if you help them find it, that’s awesome.”

In her undergraduate years at UNO, Syrek joined the forensics team. After receiving her master’s in communication from UNO in 2004, Syrek says she didn’t know if she wanted to coach the team.

While waiting tables at Olive Garden, Syrek found out that MavForensics position was open. She says it was then that she knew teaching was what she wanted to do.

The instructor cites her mom as one of the most influential people in her life up to this point.

Syrek’s mother, who was a high school teacher, taught business and advised organizations such as Mock Trial and Future Business Leaders of America. Syrek says those commitments were part of 12 to 15-hour days of teaching over a 25-year period.

“Now that I’m teaching, I look back on the amount of hours that she put in,” Syrek says. “The older I get, the more I really appreciate how she was able to create a dynamic,life-changing learning environment just through sheer commitment, passion and love for students,” Syrek says. “That inspires me a lot.”

Syrek, who grew up in Decatur, Nebraska, has one brother, who is a lawyer. In the
summer, she often rides horses with her father. Syrek says her family’s supportiveness inspired
her to bring a loving, encouraging spirit to the forensics team.

This teaching style has prompted a response among the team members. Abby Hoffman, a first-year forensics student, was on the Skutt Catholic team before she came to UNO. She says Syrek’s leadership keeps the group focused and passionate about their goals.

“She’s absolutely wonderful,” Hoffman says. “Her positive energy is definitely a huge aspect of the team. It keeps us moving forward.”

Hoffman says her favorite part of the forensics program is the family atmosphere. She says she believes that is made possible by each person’s commitment to the craft and to one another.

Hoffman says she has learned a lot from Syrek’s example, but her “contagious smile” and optimism inspire her most.

The relationship between students and mentor is a close one. Syrek says she has been moved by how much the members of the team serve each other and the community.

“I’m most proud of the things that people can’t see,” Syrek says.

“I’m proud of what we’ve built here and the day-to-day happenings where students have a family on the forensics team, many of whom come from hurtful backgrounds,” she says. “I’m proud of the love they have for each other.”

Syrek’s says the nationally-recognized program is “grueling.” Being involved in forensics means weekends of traveling to and from competitions. Syrek says the season essentially lasts from July to April, which requires a time-commitment from students.

In the summer, Syrek spends a lot of time revising student speeches. Yet, the team also makes room for fun, whether it is eating at the Cheesecake Factory or playing basketball together.

Hoffman says she has benefitted from her time on the forensics team.

“I’ve already become a more open-minded, loving person,” Hoffman says. “It’s awesome to be around people who let you grow and become a well-rounded person.”

The forensics director says she has been changed by the program, as well. Syrek says she is impressed by the students and their desire to help others, which often makes her cry.

“I think that whenever you have a chance to be a part of something where people will do anything for the betterment of the group, it’s a very rare thing,” Syrek says. “That’s what we’ve built here.”