Hard Work, Personal Stories Bring Speech Team Big Wins

At the American Forensics Association National Speech Tournament in April, Asha Prabhat ’24, co-captain of the Cornell Speech Team, won top honors for her performance advocating for more research around polycystic ovary syndrome – a condition she was diagnosed with in June 2023.

“After my speech, I had about a dozen different female-presenting individuals come up to me and say things like ‘Those symptoms sound a lot like what I’ve experienced, you’ve inspired me to go to the doctor,'” Prabhat said. “It’s just an incredible thing to hear. Before I performed this speech, I felt alone in my diagnosis because I felt like no one understood. But now, all that has changed.”

This spring was the most successful season in the team’s 40-year history, and Prabhat attributes much of that success to members’ willingness to tell deeply personal stories on stage about gender, ethnicity, racism, their hometowns and their medical conditions.

“I think writing about my personal challenges was really therapeutic for me,” said Prabhat, a double major in government and feminist, gender and sexuality studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. “But also made for powerful speeches that were vulnerable and empowering.”

The Cornell Speech Team is a branch of the Cornell Speech and Debate Society, a registered student organization sponsored by the ILR School, that combines storytelling, performance, social justice and public policy. Each competition consists of 11 different events – ranging from poetry interpretation to communication analysis – and students can compete in up to six events.

In March the team traveled to Dublin for the International Forensics Association tournament – known as the World Championship. They took home four top-six finishes, including Prabhat’s gold, enroute to a fifth-place team showing. In April they traveled to the University of Wisconsin, Eau-Claire, for the American Forensics Association National Speech Tournament, known as the National Championship. Out of nearly 1,500 entries, Cornell placed in eight events, including Prabhat’s first-place win and a first-place finish for Margot Treadwell ’24 in impromptu speaking, while the team ranked sixth in the nation.

When Prabhat and Treadwell joined the organization in August of 2020 their first competitions were held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. In 2022, the team’s few returning members united with their new coach and director of speech, MacLain Naumann, to rebuild the team. They spent the 2022-23 season trying new training strategies, bringing them some success at the National Championship in 2023. At the start of this season, the team set a big goal.

“We all had a meeting and asked each other ‘How can we work to get to be a top 10 program?’ and really our intention all year was to get to that,” Prabhat said.

Every Friday for two hours they would meet and write jokes together to help those preparing for the after dinner speaking event: a category where students use humor to communicate their message. For those preparing for the extemporaneous speaking event – in which contestants have 30 minutes to prepare a speech on a current event – the team would spend hours peppering teammates with questions about possible topics.

“I think working as a community to build each other up and help each other achieve our goals has been really important,” Prabhat said.

From September to February, the team participated in local and regional tournaments in an effort to secure qualification for the championships. While sometimes difficult to hear, both Prabhat and her co-captain Jaliah Smith ’25 said the critical feedback they received during those rounds helped them to fine-tune their speeches and become bolder.

Ultimately, their work paid off.

“We encouraged all our other teammates to dig down and dig deep into stuff that’s personal to them,” said Smith, a philosophy major in A&S. “And our goal, at the end of the day with speech, was to always advocate for ourselves and to let other people know that they weren’t alone in whatever they were dealing with.”

Laura Gallup is a communications lead in Student and Campus Life.

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