Speech/Debate displays rousing show of rhetoric

Senior Jess Kennedy's speech was one highlight of the GCU Speech and Debate team show.

Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Garrett Ohrenberg
GCU News Bureau

An audience member tossed Jess Kennedy a random line. She had two minutes to construct a speech from it.

The line: “Gotta catch ‘em all.” Kennedy seemed baffled at the randomness. Maybe they were thinking of the Pokémon slogan, but who knows? She had to quickly write a speech.

Like the basketball team’s soaring dunks at Midnight Madness, this Wednesday evening showcase displayed the talents of the Grand Canyon University Speech and Debate team.

Kennedy calmly took the stage, a senior just off her season highlight of third place in extemporaneous speaking at the National Christian College Forensics Invitational last weekend.

She ripped off a speech with nary an um, like, ah -- or even a pregnant pause. It was if she had spent the last week prepping. In it, she provided entertaining biographies of Nellie Bly, known for a record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days, Violet Jessop, an ocean liner stewardess who survived three sunken ships, including the Titanic, and the 1904 Olympic marathon teams' crazy race to illustrate will and perseverance to catch ‘em all.

Now that was a monstrous dunk.

Kennedy said afterward that she could soar because she spends so much time in a curious mode, listening for interesting lines in movies, anecdotes in book biographies or revealing current events. She carries around a notebook and jots them down.

“I’d do really good on 'Jeopardy,'” she said.

But putting it all together on the fly is the skill of the extemporaneous speaking category in speech contests – though contestants in college competitions typically have 30 minutes to prepare.

It’s what she loves about speech -- the knowledge she picked up from her own research but also listening to competitors’ speeches. “I’ve learned about tax fraud and this gum commercial that was intended to combat Islamophobia,” she said.

Her favorite speech this year was her communication analysis that explored how pro-life rhetoric is used for the argument about wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Michael Dvorak, Director of Forensics, held the event to highlight the talents of the team.

“My argument is that the application of choice should remain specific to the individual and not become part of the public health conversation, because the pro-choice and anti-mask arguments are not as similar as they first appear, simply because abortions aren’t contagious,” she said.

The event allowed students gathered on the Grove Lawn to see what the Speech and Debate team does in a casual environment, said Michael Dvorak, Director of Forensics.

What they did this season was encouraging. Highlights include the Speech team’s third-place finish in the Christian nationals and the Debate team finishing the season ranked 20th nationally by the National Parliamentary Debate Association.

“It exceeded my expectations, considering all the weirdness that was COVID. We weren’t able to have full meetings, we weren’t able to practice like we did in the past,” Dvorak said. “But I was super happy with how we preformed given all the hardships we had to overcome this year.”

Lauren Baker of the Speech team spoke of culture in her native Hawaii.

First-year competitor Lauren Baker, coming off a fourth place in poetry and fifth in oral interpretation at the Christian nationals, also performed a speech that decried stereotyping the Hawaii native culture and exploiting it for commercial gain. Tourists, she said, now outnumber natives in her home state of Hawaii 6 to 1. She argued for its language and cultural customs to endure.

Aolani Torres performed an informative speech on another sort of exploitation, the Mexican cartels’ pirating of the avocado industry, injecting humor to compare the ineptitude of paid-off police to a “homeowners’ association protecting you from the mob.”

Debate team members Shane McShane and Scarlet Villarreal put on their own fun show, pitted against two audience volunteers in another exercise of quick thinking. The four were posed the question for debate on whether GCU should have a football team, with only a few minutes to prepare.

The audience members ripped off a list of reasons for starting football – big revenues from college football, increased visibility for GCU and showcasing one of college’s most enthusiastic student sections – while McShane and Villarreal countered that the effects of head trauma and the financing of less high profile football programs with student fees were reasons not to.

Debate team members Scarlet Villarreal (left) and Shane McShane present their arguments against a football team at GCU.

“I hope that events like this bring attention to the benefits of speech and debate because so many people treat it like this terrifying concept. Even class presentations are daunting to so many people,” Kennedy said. “So I hope to one day guide people through that fear to enjoy it as much as I do.”

She hopes to be a corporate public speaking coach or enter other writing and editing fields with her Communications degree after an expected December graduation.

The event allowed team members to finally look audience members in the eye. With all tournaments held virtually this year because of COVID, competitors couldn’t take a reading of the judges or play off audience reactions, though more tournaments were entered, even internationally, because it cut down on the cost. “And I do get to do my speeches with my shoes off,” Kennedy said.

The skills she has learned over seven years of speech – four in high school in San Diego and three at GCU – have taught her to think on her feet and speak “without brain lapses.” Her love of getting up on stage to speak is the prime reason she is so enthusiastic about her future.

“My mom would say that I like the attention,” Kennedy said. “But I think it’s because I do have something to say, even if it’s just a cliché message about perseverance and determination being important, there is still a chance that what you’re saying will resonate with someone.

“To be up there and see the wheels turning in people’s heads as they consider things that maybe they hadn’t before, you really do feel like you are making a difference.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.


Related content:

GCU Today: Students’ mock debate was uniquely presidential

GCU Today: Best ever: Speech and Debate dominates nationals


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