On the fateful night of April 27, 2014, homeowner Markus Kaarma shot and killed 17-year-old Diren Dede, a German foreign-exchange student who was attending Big Sky High School.
Many people knew about this. The news story was so big, it even made it on CNN.
But unlike any other person watching the news, to Kelli Rosenquist, this incident was not merely another headline: this was a dead human being.
“At the time, the murder of Diren really made me realize my own mortality,” Rosenquist said. “I understood that this kid wasn’t going to get to play soccer again and he wasn’t going to be able to see his family again...
“And Kaarma thought he could get away with it using the castle doctrine, despite the fact that he was already a twice convicted felon in ownership of a gun.”
She reflects with a high level of indignation, the same indignation which created a fundamental desire in her speak out against injustice.
Before moving to Missoula, Rosenquist, originally from Savannah, Georgia, had already jumped around from city-to-city and state-to-state six times, “Nine if you include just moving houses,” she said.
A bright, straight-postured person, Rosenquist’s bright eyes and rosy cheeks seem alert and attentive, her stature often focused directly on the point of attention in the room, if she is not the one creating it.
“I understood that Dede’s voice had been taken away from him, and so I felt I had to speak up while he could not.”
And so, with the Kaarma case still fresh in her mind, Rosenquist joined speech and debate her sophomore year.
In the beginning, Rosenquist was a shy person in an outgoing setting. Speech and Debaters have a reputation for being bold and outspoken, never shying away from sharing their opinions, acting out their potential, and holding themselves to high-standards in the intellectual world.
Rosenquist joined the debate-half of S&D, choosing Public Forum as her event, with Taylor Gregory as her first debate partner.
Public Forum works as two teams of two-persons debating one another. One topic is given for every month to be debated, and four speeches per each team are delivered before a judge. Each person speaks twice.
Seeking after Public Forum’s level of social and critical discourse, Rosenquist remembers that she was, “looking for people who shared mindsets similar to my own.”
So she did what any person who wishes to be good at something does: she practiced. And practiced. And practiced some more.
Through the highs and lows of winning, losing, and “epically failing” rounds, Rosenquist never gave up. Highlighting one particularly difficult meet in Bozeman, she states, “I had a realization after I got third that I could do better.”
Through competition, responsibility, and a pervasive desire to continually improve herself, Rosenquist feels Speech and Debate has made her a better person.
“There’s a certain format to how you’re supposed to do Public Forum, but I do it in a totally different way. Instead of focusing on the topics as statistics and cases, I try to make the audience realize that these are real people, they’re not just characters from a fictional novel.
“For example, when a young girl is raped by a peacekeeping soldier in the Congo, I want people to see that that is more than just a headline—it’s a real event, and it matters to other people,” she said. “I have the need to make everyone feel the same passion I do.”
To strangers, she may come off as critical, but she’s not as harsh as you’d think. Her straightforward, frank attitude can largely be pinned on her determination and devotion to her academics, and the leadership it has created in her is not just felt in herself.
In Rosenquist’s junior year, she was voted in as Montana’s representative on the national level, making it into the top 14 for nationals, and in March of 2016, she was voted in by Sentinel’s Speech and Debate team to be a Captain.
But Rosenquist also has a simple side. She loves cows.
“I have this pillow-pet cow named ‘Quentin’ that I carry with me on the bus to tournaments,” she admits with a slight hint of embarrassment.
Senior Jackson Petty knows all about the cows because unlike in a stand-alone speech, it takes two to tango in the linguistic battle for the hearts and minds of the judges.
Rosenquist states that Petty, her current debate partner is, “the opposite of me, but we go super well together. He’s super-sarcastic and logical, and he uses humor and statistics to both uphold and defuse some of the seriousness of the situations and cases we debate.”
Beginning their junior year, Rosenquist and Petty chose each other as partners, and have been debating ever since. Together, the two of them write cases, do practice rounds, and discuss their plans of action.
Drawing on the power of their combined differences, Petty leans back into a forward posture, using the table as a board to cross his hands on and explains.
“We’re fairly different people, but I don’t see it contrasting. I see it as complementing, although her style of debate is slightly more aggressive than mine; more forward, analytical, and questioning,” he said.
Regardless of their differing personalities, the two are among the most respected Debaters in Sentinel High for a reason. Using strategy, the two plan for Rosenquist to always be first speaker.
Utilizing this method, Rosenquist will be lined up in order to be speaker during cross-examination, one of her most valued strengths, and something her fellow Speech and Debater Chris Malcolmson describes as an, “intimidating experience.”
For a silly side-note, at the end of the interview I ask Petty to expand on Rosenquist’s obsession with cows.
“Oh yeah!” he slaps his hands together, leans back in his chair again and then covers his mouth laughing the more he thinks about it. “Oh my gosh the cows!”
Once the humor of the question wears off, Petty, with a certain level of amused seriousness said, “Anybody who knows Kelli seriously knows that she loves cows.”
Later, when I talk to Rosenquist again, she asks me about how my interview with Jackson went, and I mention how I asked him a question regarding her affection for cows.
“Oh no,” she said with a hint of somewhat feigned dread, worried that Petty might have given little for valuable insight, “He talked about cows?”