Persistence to Prosperity-Vishal Sundaram

If anyone had told me three years ago that I would be writing a nostalgic piece speaking fondly of my speech and debate journey, I probably would have told them that they were utterly delusional. If anyone had told me a year before that that I would even be embarking upon said journey, I would’ve told them that they had the wrong guy. As a freshman in high school, I was only vaguely aware of the existence of this strange program known as “speech and debate”. Now sitting in my dorm writing this piece as a freshman in college, I can’t imagine a life without it.

I tried out for Solon High School’s speech and debate team as a sophomore upon the recommendation of an upperclassman in my world history class who suggested that I consider a rather peculiar event known as “extemp”. While ignorant to all current events, unfamiliar with politics, and unable to tie a tie, I was sold – for this event required no memorization prior to competition! How hard could it possibly be?

 After making the team, I quickly learned that I could not have been more wrong. When given the daunting task of preparing a speech to present at one of our first practices, I found that the allotted 30 minutes was hardly enough time for me to gather my thoughts, let alone to prepare and memorize a 7-minute argument. Alone, nervous, and vulnerable at the front of the library conference room, I proceeded to deliver the incoherent mess that was meant to pass as a my first extemp “speech”.  

Seeing as that experience was only practice, I could not even begin to imagine what competition would be like. As such, I took what seemed to me at the time to be the only logical option – to quit speech and debate entirely. I emailed my coach, requested a full refund of my club dues, and announced my withdrawal from the activity that I had been a part of for hardly a month. Case closed. 

Lucky for me at the time, my coach was occupied with other commitments (this is perhaps the only time in my life that I will appreciate jury duty) and was unable to fulfill my request right away. In the interim, I pondered some more and eventually decided that my decision was rash. I wanted to give speech and debate another chance, but perhaps in an event – any event – other than extemp. 

With this decision began my one-year stint with Congressional Debate – an event that shared some elements with extemp but allowed me to use my legal pad as a crutch. While I saw mild local success, a key element was missing my entire sophomore season: I was not having fun. I felt pressured, writing speeches Friday night before tournaments, felt constrained by the brevity of speeches, and felt drowned in the nuances of parliamentary procedures and tournament politics. While I developed valuable skills in speaking and argumentation, I could see that a change was needed. After one year of unfulfilling competition, I decided to give extemp another try.

While some may (accurately) label my 10th grade decisions as overly impulsive and dramatic, my experience in congress allowed me to return to extemp with more knowledge, skills, and – most importantly – confidence. Newly equipped, I forced myself through my first local tournament and was pleasantly surprised with my 6th place performance. Beyond the outcome, I also found that, for the first time in a year, I had genuinely enjoyed the thrill of competition. A spark within had finally ignited my passion and as I put more in, I saw evidence that I was getting more out.

My journey from that point forward was largely a blur and just 2 years later, I found myself speaking in the 2017 U.S. Extemp National Final Round in Birmingham, Alabama. I had gone from the sophomore too nervous to speak at the front of the library conference room, to the senior presenting (mostly) confidently to a live audience on one of the largest stages that speech and debate has to offer. While proud of this destination, I can confidently say that my fondest memories and most valuable experiences in speech and debate are from the journey linking these two extremes. What started as a trivial after school commitment became what was arguably the defining aspect of my high school experience. It taught me the importance of persistence in the face of daunting challenges. It broadened my perspective on the world, making me a better-informed member of society, while adding to my rather one-dimensional STEM-focused academic interests areas such as political science, writing, economics, and popular culture. And yet even as speech and debate allowed me to develop such lifelong skills and attributes, its most important gifts to me were the people I met and the memories that I made. It introduced me to the people that would become my second family and gave me mentors and coaches who have helped me to become the person I am today. Even if I lost everything else that speech and debate gave me, retaining these relationships and memories would be enough to have made it all worth it.  

Having recounted my own speech and debate experience, I would like to offer a few words of advice to current competitors: 1) Persist. While trite, it can go a long way. Have faith in your abilities and do not be quick to abandon your goals. 2) Invest. Find what you are passionate about and go all in – you will be pleasantly surprised to find the difference that a little enthusiasm can make. 3) Cherish. Time does indeed fly when you’re having fun, and speech and debate is no different. Enjoy every minute of the ride, for you will miss it once it’s over – I know that I do and that I always will.