Stuyvesant Speaks and Debates

The effects of the Speech and Debate team on students’ social lives, including improvements in social anxiety and public speaking skills following the pandemic.

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With the COVID-19 pandemic having put in-person learning on hold for over a year, the transition away from remote schooling has been challenging for some. Spending the vast majority of waking hours in front of a computer screen with limited social interaction, many Stuyvesant students have noted major changes in their social lives. However, joining clubs that emphasize social environments, such as the Speech & Debate teams, has helped some students get their social lives back on track.

Sophomore Erica Liu, who joined the Speech team this year, found that while she is generally an outgoing person, the circumstances of the pandemic limited her ability to interact with others in meaningful ways. “When I’m with other people in person, it’s super easy for me to talk to them. It’s totally different [...] when my only communication with them is virtual,” she explained. “The pandemic played a part in cutting down my close bonds, which I had neglected since I had other things to do.” Liu’s time on the Speech team has allowed her to make up for this lost contact. “Participating in Speech has introduced me to really nice people, and I’m just wowed every time I see them perform,” she said. Despite Liu’s already extroverted nature, performing unique interpretations in front of an audience has also allowed her to improve her self-confidence. “I have become more confident in expressing myself,” she said. “I never really minded school presentations, but now I try to make them more interesting to the class. [I have found] that it’s fun to be someone who captures the attention of an audience.”

Sophomore Eshaal Ubaid, who’s been in Speech since the beginning of her time at Stuyvesant, voiced a similar experience. “In real life, I think I sought out more friendships and acquaintances, whereas online I sort of stopped after finding a few,” she said in an e-mail interview. “I lost a bit of confidence with in-person speaking and would often default to text.” Ubaid is in extemp (extemporaneous) speech, which is quite socially demanding. “Extemp involves researching and coming up with amazing hooks within minutes, which definitely carried over to my daily conversations,” she explained. “I feel more confident [now]. I used to doubt myself a lot, but now that I’m more up to date with current events, I’ve been training myself to not downplay what I know.”

Sophomore Tejas Siddaramaiah is in his first year of Lincoln-Douglas debate, which entails one-on-one arguments for or against a specified resolution. In an e-mail interview, he shared that communication from behind a screen made it more difficult to make friends. He also noted that he has suffered from social anxiety. As a result of this, while an environment such as debate is great for meeting new people, it isn’t always easy to make new friends. For Siddaramaiah, competing with students from other schools in person has proven to be a significant transition from the limited aspects of remote learning. “Debate has definitely made me more confident when speaking with others,” he said. “You must speak with 100 percent confidence even if you think you are 100 percent wrong, which is very important in talking with others.”

Of course, one must also consider the challenges of such a commitment, especially in a remote setting. Senior William Summitt, captain of the Congressional Debate team, found that the pandemic diminished some of the spark that the team once had. “The overall ethos of Congressional Debate was reduced to Zoom screens, lag, and instant messaging,” he said in an e-mail interview. “In comparison to the rich, subtle, and very human nature of the event, what we were given during my junior and sophomore years was very hard to deal with.” Summitt believes that the effects of the pandemic have carried over to the present as well. “The attitude in the team was also lessened, and we lost a lot of good members who were, for lack of a better term, checked out,” he said. Despite this, Summitt’s position on the Debate team has allowed him to see self-growth and confidence in a different light. “Being on the Speech and Debate team has improved my confidence tremendously, especially in school,” he said. “Exposure to other debaters sometimes makes me aware of how much I have to grow, but I honestly see that as more motivation than any blow to my confidence or ego.”

Among the numerous hardships—academic and social—that the isolation of the pandemic has placed on Stuyvesant students, its long-term impact on mental health regarding social life is often left undiscussed despite its significance. Fortunately, Stuyvesant offers a wide variety of clubs that encourage collaboration, camaraderie, and interaction, a notable example being the Speech & Debate team. While there’s no single quick-fix solution for returning to social normalcy, joining one of these clubs may be the first step. As Summitt noted, “Being a part of a community that’s filled with so many smart, active, and capable students is really inspiring and only makes me more proud to be a part of the team.”