Photos by Ralph Freso
Ellen Joseph moved a lot as a military kid. Her mom served in Kuwait and dad in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both came home with medical issues and were in and out of care.
“My childhood was rough,” she said. “I didn’t really have friends. I’d go into a new school, and you really learned to be in the shadow.”
Joseph's parents, her greatest example of perseverance, suggested Ellen face her shyness by taking a ninth-grade speech class. It terrified her. During the first speech, her trrembling hands dropped the index cards.
“I was a little small-town girl who moved there with no friends. I had no confidence in anything, and I was always mediocre at everything – theatre, choir, orchestra – but I’d never found anything I truly loved that I wanted to dedicate my time to,” Joseph said of her early years in Brandon, South Dakota.
She told herself, “Just do it.” In subsequent speeches, a fire began to burn inside. She entered competitions. Everything started to click. She stopped thinking of how people looked at her and concentrated on her own message.
“Overcoming that hurdle and just getting up and doing it proved to myself I had confidence. It took me four years to totally build my confidence, but (speech) gave me the ability to go in the world and not care about anything and just be bold.”
Her boldness as a Grand Canyon University freshman has led to the Speech team’s first entry in the premier tournament of the speech season, the American Forensic Association National Speech Tournament in Santa Ana, California, the weekend of March 31.
Joseph not only qualified for the tournament, a difficult enough task, but did so in six events.
“I’m terrified,” she said. “These big universities have three coaches for every event. But it’s kind of fun to be the underdog, I’m not going to lie.”
Joseph has found a storyteller voice with her own underdog narrative. Despite ranking in the top 10 nationally in high school to earn a scholarship offer to nearby South Dakota State University, she was an unknown when she stepped up to the GCU booth at a tournament because she liked the color purple and asked about the school.
With newfound confidence, she emailed Michael Dvorak, GCU’s Director of Forensics, and asked about GCU’s Speech and Debate team. She said he told her that speech is much different here than in the Midwest.
“He probably thought I was some ragtag kid that did it for a year in high school,” she said.
He was sold after a virtual audition, but Joseph said that she still had to prove herself to Dvorak, who wanted her to do more than talk the talk, she needed to “walk the walk.”
At the first competition, new teammates told her to not worry, she’s only a freshman, just get through it.
“I’m going to win,” she remembers thinking. “I’m going to prove everyone wrong.”
She won. And kept on winning. Joseph made the finals of a January tournament with some of the nation’s top competitors, and last weekend helped GCU win its first team title in the National Online Forensics Championship by winning five events.
“Ellen Joseph is a massive competitor in terms of her dedication to win and her desire to improve as a competitor, not only leading to team success but helping other members of her team,” Dvorak said. “And she is a freshman who emailed me out the blue.”
Joseph said passion and hard work are the key.
“Comments I always get from judges is, ‘This performance is set apart because I can feel your emotions. This made me laugh, or this made me cry,’” she said. “You want to take the judges on the journey with you.”
Her poetry interpretation performance is a searing bit of poetry and commentary on gaslighting young women who have been abused. She dedicated it to a friend.
“For that 10 minutes, when I get up and give a speech, I am not Ellen. I am showing an audience why this is so important to me,” she said.
In poetry, which she considers her top event, and in other events, such as program oral interpretation and dramatic interpretation, when she tackles women in politics or grieving over violence, the tears often come freely. She is acting but says she really feels it, too.
“It’s a monologue for 10 minutes where you get to tell a story. With acting you tell a narrative,” she said. “I cry in my pieces when I get emotional. I don’t remember what is going on, it’s a trance. I can’t explain it.”
She’s gone from a shy child, to focusing primarily on speech, to a college student who has blossomed into friendships, volunteer work, an upcoming internship at a nearby church and a Speech team leader.
As a Christian studies major, she said she hopes to take the talent God has given her “to pour into people spiritually” and also write and perform a piece about the trauma of soldiers.
“My parents were a great example to me of persevering despite hard times,” she said. “I want to use that narrative that is really important to me.”
She has found her voice to do it – with confidence.
“A judge came up to me and asked where I was getting my master’s degree. I told him I was a freshman and he said, ‘No way.’”
Joseph likes to prove people wrong.
“That’s what I’m best at,” she said.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.