La Verne’s Jedi Master
Ian Lising channels the force of speech
by Amanda Nieto
photography by Uyen Bui
When Adrian “Ian” Lising was a child and had a question, he would go to his mom. She would usually point him in the direction of an encyclopedia. By age 6, Ian had the habit of reading encyclopedias for fun. “My intellectual curiosity was started at a very young age,” Ian says with the wisdom of a man long past his formative years. Now, as department chair of speech communication at the University of La Verne, Ian is surrounded by treasures and tokens of his past—a past full of traveling, learning and adapting to every opportunity that presented itself.
His quest for enlightenment has led to life markers where he perfected his skills and unlocked his potential. Over the years, his titles have evolved from debater to debate coach, stand-up comic to TV host, professor to chair of a department, husband, father and friend. These titles changed as Ian grew toward excellence; however, what is always evident is that the force is strong with this one.
Learning the power of a mentor
Ian was born in Teaneck, New Jersey, to parents both from the Philippines. At the time, his mother was a student at Columbia University; his dad at New York University. Calling himself a reserved and shy child, Ian says he felt much older than his actual age. His childhood hero was Obi-Wan Kenobi. “Most kids wanted to be Han or Luke Skywalker, but here I was, a little kid, wanting to be Obi-Wan,” Ian says. At 5, Ian remembers his first viewing of “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” There was a man sitting in front of Ian who turned around and asked whether it was his first time seeing the film. The man said it was his fourth viewing of the day and returned his blood shot eyes back to the screen. It took no time for the film to captivate Ian the same way. In time, the same mentoring skills he saw in Obi-Wan would serve him with his own students.
When Ian was 6, his family moved to Manila in the Philippines. Ian recalls that the transition was extremely difficult, and he often saw himself as an outsider in his parents’ home country. At first, his elementary education was at an American international school. Then, in the sixth grade, he followed his dad’s educational path and was enrolled in an all boys’ Catholic school with classes that demanded fluency in Filipino. “You’re talking about a guy who was at the level of ‘Cat in the Hat’ trying to learn civics. It was nonsense. So it was a crash course; I had to learn Filipino and also the culture on the fly.” Language was not the only cultural barrier. “I had a lot of friends, and people were very friendly. But there were times people would tease me, and they’d call me ‘amboy,’ which means American boy, and in the Philippines that term is kind of derogatory because it’s saying you’re distanced from your heritage.”
At age 12, Ian discovered another influential figure in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The same mentoring he admired in Obi-Wan was also found in Atticus Finch. “The novel transported me to that reality, not just to the story line, and I recognized the injustice in it.” He says the advocacy found in Finch’s defense resonated with him as well as the necessity to speak for those who cannot defend themselves. The novel led Ian to consider becoming a lawyer. He soon focused on that goal.
Following his sophomore high school year, his aunt invited him to live with her family. “My aunt knew how I felt because I would always share with her, and she knew how much I missed the states.” In 1988, he began his junior year of high school in Kearney, Nebraska. That transition to small town America was a remarkable point of his life. He joined the high school wrestling and football teams. And he was first introduced to debate, which captured his interest and would later impact multiple aspects of his future. Ian initially signed on to debate because it was an essential skill to become a lawyer. Another benefit: “It helped me understand myself socially. I came out of my shell and became quite outspoken.” Soon, Ian began exploring U.S. university options. Then a letter came from the Philippines. It was from his mother, who requested that he apply to Ateneo de Manila University. Ian was completely against the idea; he wanted to remain in the states. “I also realized that if I left home at such an early age that my relationship with my parents wasn’t really grounded.” He made a deal with his mom and destiny: If he were accepted to Ateneo, then he would take that as a sign. He applied to only one university, and that was Ateneo. “I didn’t think I had a shot. To be honest, I didn’t really put everything into it because I didn’t desire to go there. Talk about putting your foot in your mouth because then I got accepted.”
Ian arrived at Ateneo and realized that the debate format he learned and cherished in the states was starkly different. It was unstructured with three people to a team rather than the traditional two. Ian became outspoken about the debate modifications needed for authentic competition. His freshman year, there was one major debate against Ateneo’s rival institution. Ian, at first selected as an alternate, won a starting team role, along with another freshman and a senior. The medal won from that debate now sits on Ian’s office shelf. Without taking a moment to search, he points to it. Ian and his fellow freshman teammate took that victory and pushed it further by founding the Ateneo Debate Society in 1991 as incoming sophomores.
Only a year after its creation, the Ateneo Debate Society was invited to the 1992 World Championships at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Ian was a member of the two teams that went to compete. Secretly, he was glad to add more experience toward his pursuit to become a lawyer. Nevertheless, his second World Championship in Melbourne, Australia, his senior year, turned him from being a lawyer. At the time, he was taking a pre-law course in international law. “I was in my senior year and realized I hated the course; I was so bored, and I thought to myself there is no way I can do this for the rest of my life.” Ian was soon to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in political science, looking at a career choice he no longer wanted. After his graduation he did not apply to law school, instead he chose to pursue a master’s degree in history at Ateneo. At the time, he was offered a substitute teacher position in English at Ateneo High School. “Everyone said I would be a good teacher, but I kind of rejected it on its face because I was so adamant about not being a teacher,” Ian says. Against his rejection feelings, Ian accepted. “I loved it. It felt like I was a fish that found water. I was out of a fish bowl for so long, and all of a sudden I was like, this is it. This is what I am meant to do.” His teaching responsibilities reached a rapid point of expansion. Later that year, he began teaching interdisciplinary studies at the undergraduate level, which developed into a full-time position as an English professor. Ian not only taught in lecture courses but also began coaching the Ateneo debate team.
At the 1997 World Championships in South Africa, he discovered another opportunity. Side events became extremely popular at the Championships, including stand-up comedy. “In the deepest, darkest recesses of my desires I wanted to be Johnny Carson or David Letterman. Looking back, I always wanted to be one of those guys, but I never saw myself doing it.” A friend convinced him to try his talent at the stand-up comedy stage. He was second-runner up. The once unexplored desire turned into professional shows. In 1997, the chance came to host a talk show in the Philippines. Ian was performing a stand-up routine in Singapore when the producer for an upcoming late night talk show invited him to serve as the host. In 1998, Ian became the host for “Vip Unwind,” a talk show about exploring how time off is spent for politicians and other important public officials. His guests included the former first lady of the Philippines and the future president. At age 26, Ian was teaching at two different colleges, coaching debate, helping organize the first World Championships to be held at Ateneo, and he was hosting a talk show. He was also in the process of changing his master’s degree from history to literature. This chaotic point in life also marked the start of a relationship with Lissa, his future wife. The accumulation of responsibilities would lead to a turning point; however, not the big break Ian expected.
After two seasons as a talk show host, Ian decided to leave. He says the limited freedom he had in interviewing the show’s guests as well as the heavy editing was more of a fight than an enjoyment. Meanwhile, Ian encountered an enrollment error issue at Ateneo de Manila University that would completely flip over his plans. When changing his master’s degree from history to literature, a clerical error occurred. The history courses that he thought were dropped were instead registered as fails, and the University policy was that no master courses could be failed. This resulted in an automatic drop from the master’s program at Ateneo. “I was so upset with the University. I was one of their own, and they didn’t lift a finger to help me out.” After earning his bachelor’s degree at the University, co-founding and then coaching the debate team for free as well as working as a professor, Ian was left with no other choice but to leave. He decided that if he were going to be forced to start his master’s over again, it would not be in the Philippines. “Once upon a time, I felt so connected to the United States. Then I disconnected myself to reinvent myself to embrace the Philippines, the Philipino side of myself,” Ian says. “And here I am being rejected by this.” He realized that his future as an educator was elsewhere. He looked for a debate coach position either in the United Kingdom or Australia.
La Verne enters Ian’s life
An English friend relayed that La Verne was looking to hire a new debate coach. Ian had never heard of La Verne; conversely, many on La Verne’s campus did not know the name Ian created in the Philippines and in the international debating circuit. Ian says the transition from having so much recognition to becoming another friendly face in La Verne was a challenge, but a humbling one that he welcomed. “A year earlier, I felt like I was on top of the world, and here I felt like I was starting from scratch, but this is what life is about. It’s about embracing that challenge and seeing what you can do with it.” Fall 1999, Ian became the debate coach and assistant director of forensics at the University of La Verne while pursuing his master’s in education and performing graduate assistant duties. His first steps onto University of La Verne soil were focused by three significant goals: (1) create a culture of debate on campus; (2) make the British parliamentary style, (the World Championship format) the predominate form of La Verne debate and (3) ambitiously, within five years, coach a team to the top 32 of the World Championships. In debate, making the top 32 is referred to as the break and is similar to making it to the play-offs. This goal was furthered with a 10-year mark coaching a team to the quarterfinals, then in 15 years taking a team to the semifinals and hoping to make it to the finals in about 20 years. Astonishingly, after four months of Ian’s leading as debate coach, the ULV team made it to the finals for the first time in its history. “We were in Sydney, Australia, we had just made the finals, and I remember going back to my room at the University, looking in the mirror and asking, ‘Now what?’”
Answering that question
Everything on the book shelf from the champagne bottle, to a stone statue, to the row of DVDs is in Ian’s office for a reason. The years have added awards and memories to the shelves, and Ian can recall in detail the story behind each. His office appears almost meticulous in the way it is laid out, and there is only room for the physical manifestation of these significant moments. Next to his desk is a neatly organized file cabinet that contains important records of a different kind. Letters and cards from past students fill the cabinet with words of gratitude and praise. Ian says that during hard times he likes to look at these to help him remember that what he does is worth something. Present day students line up at his doorway to see whether Ian has time to talk. He always does. Whether the topic is course work, class schedules or something more personal, Ian stops everything to make sure their needs are met. He says he is lucky to teach something that is so directly related to every aspect of an individual’s life. People speak to him every day in either a professional or personal manner, and Ian is there to mentor students on their paths. Melanie Nadon, junior speech communication and gender, law and policy major, is one such student who seeks mentoring advice, whether the topic is her being laid-off or losing family members. “He cares about his family, friends and students, and that translates into him being a great professor,” she says. “If a student can speak about something that she fervently believes in, that she is passionate about, then there is nothing more rewarding as a teacher than to see them able to use their voice in a way that is going to be listened to,” Ian says. For a student to achieve as a speaker and grow as an individual, Ian emphasizes the importance in not glorifying the achievements of the instructor. He recites specific lines from “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” when it is revealed that Luke must learn from Obi-Wan’s master, Yoda. “The first time I saw this irritating green puppet in the swamp taking apart Luke’s camp and eating his food, I was as irritated as Luke was,” Ian says. However, it made complete sense to him that Yoda was the master and presented himself the way he does. “It’s not like Yoda needed to tell people he was a badass because his life is bigger than that, and, more importantly, his task of helping a person is bigger. Yoda is a good constant reminder that you don’t have to live by your resume.” In the way that Yoda removes his own self importance from teaching, so does Ian when he mentors his own students. His goal is to teach his students without having to live up to an expectation based on what he accomplishes. “Ian literally wrote the rule book for ULV’s style of debate. He has a lot of international recognition, but he doesn’t have a barrier of superiority over his students,” Mary Anne Mendoza, senior political science major and debate team member at the University of La Verne.
In 2000, the Speech Communication Department was formally founded at the University and no longer operated within the Communications Department. The expansion of the department brought more responsibility to Ian. He became an assistant professor, director of forensics and continued as the debate coach. Nine years later, a new chair of the department was needed, and Ian decided to step down as debate coach to take on the new leadership role. There is a tinge of sadness when he looks back on his coaching years. “I’ve said goodbye to that part of my life. I had to for the benefit of my family and the benefit of this department and the University at large.”
The year 2009 not only brought a new position at the University for Ian but also brought a new role into his life—becoming a father. His son Joaquin “Quino” was due to be born January, which coincided with the World Championships in Cork, Ireland. Ian was lucky to make it home in time for the birth; however, he realized that the time frame of future World Championships would always conflict with the holidays and his son’s birthday. “You don’t recognize that kind of sacrifice for an activity, but over time you start to put it all together, and I couldn’t do that to my child down the road,” Ian says. Now with Rob Ruiz, his former student, as the debate coach carrying on his legacy, Ian is excited and confident in the direction the team is headed. Being chair of the Speech Communication Department allows Ian to still be a part of the debate culture because it is in his department after all; however, he makes no question in asserting that it is Rob’s team. “Even though he’s not the debate coach, he still can offer support. He’s a coach in every sense of the word, and it doesn’t have to apply to debating,” Rob says.
Now Ian focuses on other aspects of his position in the speech department. A current goal: Make the campus slam poetry team an established organization with recognition similar to the debate team. He created a reputation for the debate team and hopes to carry this world recognition to the department as a whole. Ian says that he would love for students from around the world to desire to come to the University for the honor of being a speech communication major. “In some ways, I probably sound really optimistic and sound maybe painfully naive to others, but I know the hardship and the sacrifices that I have to take. Ultimately it’s not about us; it’s about the students.”
Love across the galaxies
Ian Lising fondly remembers the star struck moment he met his wife. He was onstage welcoming incoming freshmen to the Ateneo Debate Society, and in a room filled with incoming freshmen, he saw Lissa. She remembers being awed by the power of his words. It was July 1994, and Lissa was one of the debaters coached by Ian. “We were really just good friends, and then it was her senior year, and things just happened. We fell in love at the 1997 World Debate Championships,” Ian says. They began dating straight after their first kiss at the World Championships. Lissa’s family was rather strict so there were limits on how often they could see each other. After two years of dating, Ian was presented with the opportunity of leaving the Philippines for the University of La Verne. Lissa was just beginning her law degree at Ateneo. “We were still just dating; we hadn’t defined it. In my head, I had already proposed to her because I was committed to her, and that was important,” Ian says. They both knew a long distance relationship would be difficult; however, they also knew it was a necessary move for a greater end. “Ian’s my soul mate, and I wanted the best for him,” Lissa says. “I wanted to empower him like he empowered me.”
Their four and a half years apart were filled with emails and occasional time difference middle of the night phone calls. Every summer, Ian went back. The visits collided with Lissa’s law course semester starts. They had little time together. In 2001, Ian proposed, and they were civilly married in 2002. The U.S. visa process was complicated. With the visa, they planned to have a second church wedding, and Lissa would then join Ian in the states. The process dragged on for six months. November 2003, Lissa finally received the joyful news that she could enter the United States. But breaking the news to Ian, who was at the Cambridge World Championships, was problematic. When Ian is at debate events, he turns off his phone. She managed to reach mutual friends from the Ateno Debate Society. They hunted Ian down and relayed the happy news. “I remember I was never more elated in my life than in that one moment in Cambridge. I was yelling at the top of my voice, I was so happy,” Ian says. The rest of the tournament went by in a blur. Lissa’s pending Los Angeles arrival, the day after his return from the Championships, was his only focus.
Ian recognizes the civil wedding date as their 10th anniversary. “The friendship was definitely there. It formed the backbone for the family we have today,” Lissa says. The date of their first kiss is the same day he proposed, which is also the same day as their civil and church weddings. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you’re so sentimental,’” Ian says. “I’m just practical, I have to remember one day.”