The activity that transformed my life

by Olyvia Chinchilla

During the fall of eighth grade, I was preparing for my first formal speech—presenting my winning science essay. When I mentioned the event to my great aunt, informing her that I would like to become a good public speaker, she replied that she was certain I could succeed. The same year, a friend encouraged my older sister and me to start competitive speech and debate. At first I was reluctant to participate, because I was less talkative than my sister.

Finally I acquiesced, mainly because I remembered the words I had confided to my aunt. Looking back, five years later, I see the benefits of speech and debate: I have not only become an efficient public speaker—having spoken at my local Veterans Day Service and other public venues—but I have also developed critical life skills.

My first Impromptu Ballot in regulated competition was harsh. The judge wrote a single sentence: “Poor delivery, rambling and repetitive, no concrete examples given, no confidence displayed in material or self.” Perhaps his comment was an overstatement, since he was comparing me (an eighth grader) to 18 year olds who qualified to finals at that tournament. I took the judge’s comment at face value, though and developed a motivation to work hard and succeed, not only in Impromptu, but also in all of speech and debate.

I wholeheartedly engaged in preparation and practice. My sister and I qualified to regionals in the process, and debated the region’s best team. During my freshman year, my new partner and I advanced to regionals on a winning record, and I qualified in Impromptu! I also received an official leadership position as an assistant coordinator at a novice tournament.

My leadership skills were tested further as a sophomore when I debated with my younger brother, a novice. My work ethic also received a critical test, when I was assigned to research a complicated “case” during an extremely busy week. I hastily compiled the minimum four-page brief in forty-five minutes—when research required at least two-four hours. As I submitted it, my conscience warned me that I would not want to use my own work. I turned the brief in anyway, hoping I would not debate the team. Sure enough, the next tournament, my partner and I debated that team. Sure enough, my brief was useless, and we lost. As our coach discussed the case with us again, I resolved never to research solely to reach a deadline. My criteria became no less than whether or not I would want to debate a round solely on my brief. After eight hours of research and a sixteen-page brief, I was satisfied with my job well done.

Soon afterward, I was appointed to the club’s student leadership team. My position was not without difficulties. I encountered opposition the first week, because my review of brief formatting was not “relaxed” enough. Our team discussed and quickly resolved the conflict with a satisfactory compromise. I found it best to simply face the issue and take ownership of any difficult situation; leadership requires such fortitude. The same year, I qualified in Persuasive to NCFCA Nationals, an accomplishment reserved for the top twelve percent of competitors in the third-largest national league.

During my junior year, I co-founded a club, because I felt that I could serve more people in that capacity. By meeting online to prepare students for competition, the club—Speech and Debate USA—includes those who otherwise could not participate in the activity, due to a lack of a club in their area or travel difficulties. Nevertheless, the decision to branch out and start an entirely new organization was difficult. Speech and Debate USA is the only national club in our league, and the idea of internet speech and debate is completely novel. Although our club was small its first year, my partner and I were octafinalists at regionals. I also won third place Team Policy speaker at the same tournament, an unimaginable feat when I first started debate.

Besides improving my speaking ability, speech and debate enriched my academic and personal success. The most significant areas are my research and people skills. Not only has my knowledge of policy issues (environmental, U.S./Russia, criminal justice, United Nations, and federal election law) been enlarged, but also my ability to research topics for school or in my various internships. I can find necessary information with ease online, efficiently read through hundreds of pages to find relevant parts, and compile them in a brief or essay. Speech and debate also enhanced my study habits and thought processes. Besides advancement in my reading speed and comprehension, my note-taking has greatly improved through hours of practice “flowing” debate rounds.

My people skills are being tested most recently in my job at my college’s daily newspaper. I was asked to join the paper’s business team, since my employer appreciated my communication ability and my professional demeanor—both skills I learned and refined through speech and debate. Impromptu speaking, as well as rapid-fire cross-examination, prepared me well for interviews and one-on-one conversations. I truly enjoyed my college and job interviews, with the “tough” questions. I also have conquered the fear of speaking with strangers, whether ringing the doorbell on a precinct walk, or introducing myself to college peers and professors.

Founding Speech and Debate USA fostered fantastic networking and leadership growth. During my time as president, two of my best helpers hailed from Oregon and North Carolina, while I live in Illinois. Connecting with others is a thrilling, real-world experience. The online format allowed many of those associations, and our coaches and students have reached from California, to Virginia, to Ukraine and Poland. It was amazing to see this network come together, but I believe it was due to my speech and debate experience in the first place. I never would have possessed the courage to ask for help from complete strangers through “contact us” forms; interview others over the phone whom I have never met before, or be completely confident in leading weekly webinar meetings.

As paradoxical as confidence may seem with humility, speech and debate taught me many lessons in the latter virtue. After several tournaments of going 2-4 in debate (winning only two rounds, while losing four)—and even a couple 1-5 records, I must admit; I learned that I still have a lot to learn. Receiving what I call a “barbed wire fence”—being ranked “fifth and below” (out of eight places) by all three judges on a speech panel—did not encourage me to brag. Although I excelled in later years, certain moments and rankings still kept my ego where it belongs. Whether in speech and debate or outside the activity, the lessons in humility that I learned serve me well and remind me to use whatever skills God gave me for His glory.

The speaking, research, and leadership of speech and debate has impacted me forever. My great aunt was right when she said I could excel. Was I “gifted” in the activity? Not according to my first Impromptu Ballot. Did I originally possess talent? No, I developed it. Speech and debate participation sharpened dozens of skills and provided a learning experience in leadership that will benefit me throughout my life. My story is not singular; each speaker and debater that I have encountered developed similar skills. I encourage every homeschooler to consider speech and debate participation to reap the same benefits.

Biographical information

Olyvia Chinchilla is the former President & Acting Director of Speech and Debate USA. She is currently a freshman at Northwestern University (in Evanston, IL), planning to major in Economics and minor in Mathematics. She participated for five years in speech and debate, qualifying to NCFCA Regionals and winning numerous awards in Apologetics, Extemporaneous, Impromptu, Informative, Illustrated Oratory, and Persuasive. She also competed at the national level in Persuasive in 2012, and Informative in 2014.In 2013 and 2014, Olyvia and her partner were octafinalists in Team Policy debate at the NCFCA Region VI Regionals, and Olyvia won third place Team Policy Speaker in 2013. Olyvia currently serves as a Board Member and Webmaster of Speech and Debate USA. More information about Speech and Debate USA can be found online at www.speechanddebateusa.com 

Copyright, 2015. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, Winter 2015. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.