To the student nervously prepping for a thesis presentation, to the student whose eyes sink to the ground when the professor asks a question, Vassar offers a new speech training club, Toastmasters.
Meeting every Friday afternoon for an hour, the almost one-year-old chapter of an international movement provides a setting for students to acquaint themselves with giving speeches that are both entertaining and coherent.
“There remains no club that is solely dedicated for the improvement of public speaking, which is a huge phobia for many individuals.” wrote Victoria Qiu ’14 in an emailed statement of Vassar before Toastmasters, “There really is no close substitute. You could take the Debate Club as having a similar goal however the atmosphere is completely different. Toastmasters provides a very supportive and non-judgmental venue.”
He continued, “Most [debate] people talk so fast, you can’t hear them. You would not expect people to talk like that in the real world. But I think Toastmasters is definitely real.”
Aside from preparing students for the professional world beyond undergrad, the club has allowed members to form connections through the sharing of stories. “It’s like a small family because you get to know all these people,” said member Phil Chen ’16.
“I walk past some of these people on a daily basis and before I had no idea who they were or what their stories are,” said Qiu, “But you learn things that they’re really passionate about or just an interesting fact about someone.”
Qiu mentioned that the older members, who come from the nearby IBM chapter to support the club or are Vassar administrators, have different experiences to share with the younger members.
Every week, 10 to 20 members gather for jokes, a word of the day, and to listen to speeches given by registered members. Anyone can attend and participate in smaller events, but only registered members can give full speeches that range from five to seven minutes. These social interactions work to provide a potential cure for shyness.
Chen said, “Some people are afraid of speaking. So you nurture that sort of confidence to do it. It’s not only about speaking but also about confidence.”
He recalled the first speech he gave about receiving education in China versus America, and noted the positivity of the feedback. “Everyone is so supportive. Even if you fail, and that happens—some people stop in the middle of a speech and they just can’t think and can’t move on, but that’s fine, that happens—people still give really good feedback.”
Qiu commented that some of the stories she has told in the past. “I talked about going to a foreign country and becoming less shy. It’s not something I mention to people when I talk about JYA but it was a huge change in me,” she said, speaking of her summer abroad in Ukraine before junior year.
Chen was stirred by a speech given by member of the Posse Program David Carrell ’17 about his personal philosophy developed through his war experiences. “His words were like, if you’re going to do something, why not give it your best?”
“They talked about their lives and it just makes me realize how sheltered my life has been when I hear the struggles they’ve gone through. It reminds you to be humble when you hear some of the things others have gone through,” said Qiub.
One of the first 20 members to join the club, Andrew Jdaydani ’14, said, “I gave a speech about my position as captain of the rugby team and keeping the end in mind. Bringing together several topics like motivation, perseverance and optimism. I really enjoyed how well others said they could relate to it.” Jdaydani first heard about Toastmasters while studying abroad in New Zealand.
The club aims to help people with public speaking in all facets of life. The improvement process is comprehensive, focusing on improving speech-giving from all aspects, including the technical details of pronunciation and the bigger picture of a speech’s content and one’s ability to speak without relying on notes.
Chen said that his goal is to achieve the coherency and fluency of a TedTalk speaker but that he also looks up to senior members of the club, including Neal Marsh, a former senior employee at IBM before retirement. “He can speak from memory about anything for seven minutes,” Chen noted.
Some students may be deterred from joining Toastmasters due to the organization’s club dues, which are $36 every six months; however, Qiu and Jdaydani spoke to the doors that the club opens up.
“Once I heard Vassar was starting a chapter, I thought why not? There’s nothing to lose except maybe an hour out of my week? [The club fees are] the equivalent of something like five sandwiches at the Retreat,” noted Qiu.
Jdaydani concluded, “[The money is] not the most appealing org fee, but it will translate to much more in terms of the international community that you can connect with and the multitude of places you can use the skills you learn.”