Thirty minutes before the first inter-collegiate Toastmasters event of its kind in Dutchess County, students from Marist College and SUNY New Paltz convened in a haphazard semi-circle in a New Paltz lecture hall to run through the rules of the day’s Parliamentary debate. Everything about the day’s competition would be on the fly, from the impromptu rule overview to the mere 15 minutes to prepare respective arguments, without prior knowledge of the prompt.
While the traditional college debate scene emphasizes fierce competition within and among institutions, the Toastmasters International organization fosters professional leadership development at the college and post-collegiate levels, focusing on leadership training and networking while nurturing public speaking skills along the way. SUNY New Paltz club president Michael Walsh ’19 explained Toastmasters’ desire to foster confidence and create lasting connections: “We try to create a friendly environment. What you’ll find in clubs is that they generally have a familial feel, and you can definitely sense a level of comfort when you enter a well-prepped club.”
Vassar’s Toastmasters club did not compete in this event due to a logistical change, yet the chosen prompt had a Vassar flare: “Should colleges and universities remove endowment investments in fossil fuel industries?” The topic was chosen by President of Vassar’s Toastmasters club and one of three debate judges, Leven Cai ’19.
New Paltz’s argument in opposition focused on how fossil fuel companies contribute to climate change. Marist’s argument in support of the investments honed in on the fossil fuel companies’ research on renewable energy and how these investments fund students’ education.
After listening to an impassioned debate about fossil fuels and climate change, the subsequent Humor contest ushered in a more laid-back environment. A student from each team delivered a prepared speech on the prompt, “Fear.” Kathleen Berenton ’20 of Marist spoke on young adults’ fear of loose change. Walsh described his fear of commitment to a significant other, a sentiment that transcended generational boundaries in the room.
While the three judges analyzed each team’s arguments in another location, Marist club president Bobby Petrelli ’20 hosted the Table Topics contest, during which anyone in the room could volunteer to give an impromptu speech on a topic Petrelli presented. Toastmasters Program Director for District 53 Linda Farley shared why she is her own superhero, and Vassar’s Brandon Spears ’21 explained why he aspires to become a politician. Cai appreciates the storytelling aspect of Toastmasters the most.
“My favorite thing about this organization is that it provides a chance for people to improve their speaking skills while also sharing stories about themselves,” he said. For Cai and the rest of this community, being a member of Toastmasters means applying skills learned in meetings and competitions to enhance other aspects of participants’ lives. He shared, “I also think that my club could be flexible enough to help students who feel too shy to speak in class or have trouble expressing their thoughts.”
New Paltz dominated the event. The team won the Parliamentary debate, and Walsh won both the Humor and Table Topics contests. However, following the award ceremony, the focus shifted from competition to companionship. The two teams shook hands and partook in friendly comradery, taking photos of themselves and others. Afterward, the two took turns addressing the judges, who prepared statements on how each speaker can improve in skills such as vocal variety, body language, audience engagement and logical persuasion.
Farley finds the development of these connections the most important goal of the organization. She hopes that no matter where in the United States, a Toastmaster can find their community. She explained: “That connectivity [and] that networking is important for our survival going into the future. You have no idea who has the information or who you can connect with that can benefit you. It can be a kindred spirit.”