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Tiny Principia College scores big in international mediation competition this year

In the past year, Principia College, which has 300 students, has bested much larger schools like Boston University and the University of Texas at Dallas.
Angela Hsieh
/
NPR
In the past year, Principia College, which has 300 students, has bested much larger schools like Boston University and the University of Texas at Dallas.

The legal mediation team at Principia College in Elsah won all three of the competitions it entered in 2023, capping the historic year with a first-place finish this month at an international event for undergraduates in Georgia.

The most recent win followed a first-place finish at another international competition open to law school teams held in Bologna, Italy, earlier this year. That March victory was the first time Principia’s team won at that level.

“Everybody was really ecstatic,” said coach and faculty adviser Jeff Steele. “Administration was like, ‘How did you do that?’ And I’m still not really sure.”

In the past year, Principia, which has about 300 students, has bested much larger schools like Boston University and the University of Texas at Dallas, Steele said.

About 30 miles north of St. Louis, sitting on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, Principia is by far one of the smallest institutions in the competitions. Boston University and University of Texas at Dallas each have around 20,000 undergraduates.

“Over the years, we’ve built a reputation that Principia is a force to be reckoned with, and I think that’s really cool,” Steele said. “A coach from another school once said, ’Principia College is like the mouse that roared.’”

From left: Principa College's mediation team Chris Ajuoga, Avery Smith, Coach Jeff Steele, Shaun Chore, and Sebastian Kyllonen, after winning big in an international mediation competition held in Georgia.
Courtesy
/
Chris Ajuoga
From left: Principa College's mediation team Chris Ajuoga, Avery Smith, Coach Jeff Steele, Shaun Chore, and Sebastian Kyllonen, after winning big in an international mediation competition held in Georgia.

Steele, who’s been the coach since the team’s inception in 2014, said the success comes down to students being prepared and patient about their work. Co-captain and junior Avery Smith said Steele is being modest.

“I believe a lot of our success had to do with your coaching,” Smith said of Steele. “I mean, you’re the person who’s been there the entire time.”

The tournaments consist of 90-minute sessions in which two students role-play as mediators and two as advocates for fictitious clients. Each session results in judges awarding scores to both individuals and teams. Awards are given in each category.

Steele said mediation has been a valuable solution for the legal system in mostly civil litigation — such as divorce, custody and estate — to resolve disputes before they get to court. The goal for the students who participate is to learn skills to reach consensus between two parties.

The undergraduate team members at Principia said they’ve noticed how their skills learned during practice and competition have helped them in their personal life.

“If you have had a Thanksgiving dinner with your families, you have mediated,” said Chris Ajuoga, another co-captain and senior on the team. “So, it's the idea that it's something that everyone does. The only thing that these competitions do is they give you the skills to do them correctly and effectively.”

Both Smith and Ajuoga said they aren’t planning on going to law school. Smith said she likes the idea of mediation as a career. Ajuoga agrees and said he’d like to focus on conflict mitigation and resolution on the international stage.

With the recent win at the undergraduate competition, Principia earned another spot at the law school competition. The team of mediators will look to continue its winning streak next March at Loyola University in Chicago.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.