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For an airline that describes its seating as “cozy,” Spirit Airlines had remarkably good legroom. After stowing my overhead luggage, I fished out the latest edition of The Economist and buckled up for the (hopefully comfortable) flight to the National Catholic Forensic League (NCFL) Tournament in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
The Economist isn’t exactly perfect in-flight entertainment, but it’s the bread and butter of any extemper (speech and debate lingo for anyone who competes in extemporaneous speech). Extemporaneous speech draws from a wide range of global headlines– everything from Uber to the Kremlin –, and The Economist covers them all. Magazines such as The Economist form the backbone of any good extemp speech.
Not even Spirit Airline’s lack of complimentary in-flight peanuts could dull my enthusiasm as I left for Ft. Lauderdale. However, as the lone competitor from my school, I also felt a hint of unease. Unlike our competition, my school’s team didn’t have any funding or a coach. Our team was small and entirely self-taught. Nobody on my team had ever done extemp before, so I didn’t have anyone to guide me. I was incredibly thankful to even have the chance to compete with nationally ranked teams.
Being sandwiched in the middle seat for four hours has a way of putting things into perspective. Early on I struggled with my speech delivery and analysis. Without any mentor, I looked online to find guidance and information. I learned a lot, but I still found that I hit barriers at tournaments. My hand gestures made me look like I was signalling traffic, and I spent more time looking at my feet than at the judge. My speech structure was broken and discordant. But I continued to try to improve. I gave speeches to my mirror to monitor my eye contact and gestures, and I recorded each speech to analyze my volume and tone. Still, I lacked the analysis and mastery of content that other students possessed. Without a large team to back me, I gave speeches to my family and researched by myself.
However I still suffered setbacks. My first national speech and debate tournament was the Harvard Invitational. Despite my lack of experience and coaching, I managed to make it to the double octofinalist round and break into the top 96 competitors. However, I received poor ranks during my double octofinalist round and I dropped out of the tournament. At that moment I realized that I needed to get serious about speech and turn my interest into a passion. I redoubled the amount effort that I put in towards my content, structure and delivery.
I took a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) about public speaking and attended summer camp at the George Mason Institute of Forensics during my sophomore year summer. At camp, I learned the fundamentals of speech substructure and delivery that I hadn’t had the opportunity to learn myself. Eventually, after a lot of work and sweat, I began to improve.
As the plane began its descent, I put away my magazine and prepared to land. In just a few hours, I would be enjoying the lush tropical beaches of Florida by spending my days holed up in a university library answering questions about Saudi petropolitics. I’d finally see the national extempers I had been dying to meet (as it turns out, they weren’t dying to meet me) and compete with students from all across the nation.
I managed to make it to the semifinals of the NCFL Tournament. Although I didn’t get to soak in any of the Florida sun, I did get the validation that I had been looking for– the validation that hard work, determination, and perseverance can lead someone to their goals, no matter what they start with.
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