Persuasion, interviewing, extemporaneous and impromptu speeches were among the forensic skills displayed by varsity members of the UIndy Forensics Speech & Debate team on March 21-22 when the students finished their competitive season at the National Speech Competition in Detroit. The varsity team—comprised of Vanessa Hickman, Shayla Cabalan, Craig Chigadza, India Graves, Melanie Moore, Sierra Roberts, Kaylee Blum and Taylor Woods—nearly tripled the team’s average from last year at the competition.

Sophomore psychology and international relations major Craig Chigadza, who placed first in persuasive speaking at the state level, emerged as national champion in interviewing. He is the first University of Indianapolis student in nearly two decades to receive this title.

The university and name of the first place winner is announced last in competition and although he was satisfied with his performance and prepared not to win, Chigadza said, with each name called that was not his own, he realized that placing first was an increasingly real possibility.

The UIndy Forensics Speech & Debate team posed with their medals and plaque, won at the State Championship Competition. Pictured on the far left, Craig Chigadza was a state champion in persuasive speaking and won a national championship in interviewing. Photo contributed by UIndy Speech Team

“As I was standing onstage, I could see my two coaches, they were in the crowd. They were almost trying to hold each others’ hands,” Chigadza said. “And it was a really happy moment that I was grateful to experience, when something is finally confirmed…When you start something and you work towards something and you actually see it bear fruit, it’s a big moment for everyone, not only for myself as an individual but the team, for my coaches, everyone that puts an effort into making the whole machine work.”

As a result of winning the national championship, Chigadza will spend the summer in China working with Learning Leaders, an organization in Shanghai dedicated to improving the debate and public speaking skills of students. Chigadza said he will work with mostly middle school and high school students there and is excited to represent UIndy overseas.

For Assistant Professor of Communication and Director of Speech & Debate Stephanie Wideman, the fact that Chigadza won in the experimental category of interviewing was special because it shows how the skills that are taught by the program are applicable to everyday life.

“Interviewing is that hardened skill,” Wideman said. “That’s where we really test out, ‘Can what we [educators] traditionally teach, transfer into something that’s getting these people jobs?’ And that was why it was so exciting to have one of ours do that and show that. What I think is exemplary of all the teaching that goes on the university is that we have a focus on not just what’s happening in the classroom, but how does that translate into what’s going to happen outside of it for the students.”

The students Wideman referred to have been steadily gaining ground in the field of speech and debate over the last couple of years. For example, junior communication and English major Shayla Cabalan will have a persuasive speech from last year’s competitive season, “11 and Engaged: America’s unseen child marriage crisis” published in the 14th edition of the human communication book being authored by a professor at the University of  New York. Chigazda will also have his persuasive speech, “The Biggest Healthcare Crisis you’ve never heard of: World EyeCare,” which was about the importance of eye care in the developing world, published in a book called Winning Orations.

Wideman also said that the team more than doubled the number of members who progressed to finals. Last year, she said that the team had five quarter finalists. This year, there were 13 quarter finalists, five of whom went to semi-finals and one national champion. The team was also ranked 15th in the nation.

“I think if I’m reflecting on their [the students’] placements, my philosophy on the team is focused on the process, not the product,” Wideman said of the team’s success. “Because if you’re always worried about what place you’re going to get, it’s going to get in the way of your preparation that you need to get you to that place. And what I’ve been most proud of is if they’ve done that and additionally, they’ve also focused on continual forward movement….I think that this year has been an excellent example of how hard work, focusing on the process, reaps great rewards for us.”

“At the end of the day, it’s not about us….Every speech has a meaning. We’re advocating for people.”

Senior supply chain management major Vanessa Hickman said that her final competition was bittersweet. While she performed well at nationals—ranking in top 12 in the nation for duo interpretation and top 24 for persuasion—and looks forward to having a less demanding schedule now that the season is over, Hickman said she will use skills she has learned through speech and debate throughout her future career.

“Obviously I’ve learned how to do better research, how to better find sources. I’ve learned to be a better advocate about things that happen here but also in internationally,” Hickman said. “I’ve learned to build stronger argument structure. I’ve learned leadership skills about myself, I’ve learned things I want to do and what don’t I want to do.”

Hickman, in addition to being team captain, is the only current member of the team who has spent her  whole college career competing. She said she thinks the speech team should prioritize retention of members, and that what she has enjoyed most about speech over her tenure is that it allows her to speak up about issues she is passionate about.

For example, two of her favorite speeches she has given are “The Demonic Sexualization of Women,” which centered on society’s tendency to sexualize women, and a recent speech comparing the Greek legend of Circe, a sorceress who turned men into pigs, with the “#MeToo” movement. In the latter speech, Hickman said she turned the idea of a “witch hunt” on its head by portraying that “this is a witch hunt, except this time the witches are doing the hunting,” meaning that victims are hunting and taking revenge on those who assault or harass them.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about us,” Hickman said. “Whether it’s about the ‘#MeToo’ movement or the demonic sexualization of women…Every speech has a meaning. We’re advocating for people. That’s most impactful for me.”

Watching the progression of the students and the pride they feel when advocating for issues that are important to them, Wideman said, is the most rewarding aspect of her role on the team. She works with the students alongside three assistant coaches—Jim Thorpe, Chad Woodward and Clarissa Bowers—to help the students improve and gain confidence.

“It’s nice to watch them own their events, own their performances with their own voices,” Wideman said. “And I’m there to help, our coaching staff is here to help, but these are really their voices that they’re taking out into the public sphere. And so the pride is when I see a look in their eye or hear them talking about, ‘I didn’t think I could do this, I didn’t think people would listen’ and they just have a new sense of themselves.”

The only remaining competition for any speech team member this season is the Interstate Oratory Tournament, the oldest speech and debate tournament in the country, held at Westchester College in Philadelphia at the end of the month. Because he placed first at the state competition in persuasive speaking, Chigazda will be there, representing the state of Indiana. Not long after, he will leave the United States to spend two weeks with family in Zimbabwe before traveling to Shanghai.

“It’s a chance to represent not only myself but the school,” Chigadza said. “So there’s certain expectations that I definitely want to meet. I always go hard on myself when it comes to those instances where I need to be able to go and represent where I’m coming from and also show them exactly what the UIndy spirit is about….It’s a chance for us to go and just show people that things do happen at UIndy. We might be a small school, people might confuse us for whatever other school it is, but things do happen at UIndy and I think that they are going to continue to happen in the future.”