I am firmly convinced that if we all do some hard reflection that we can find moments in time, specific people we have met, conversations had, experiences completed, and other items that have fundamentally changed your life. In fact, some people might be able to point to a specific event that altered the course of their history.
In my case I can’t necessarily point to one single moment. There have been plenty that when I think about it really made me who I am today and continue to influence me to this day. However, there is one experience (and it really is a lot of experiences) that has fundamentally changed my life.
Specifically, it was my involvement with forensics (or speech and debate for you non-forensicators out there) that changed my life. I love that activity. It has given me so much and my experience with that organization set me on the trajectory of where I am today. So I just want to stroll down memory lane and share some of those moments. All of them, however, are tied to speech and debate.
First, my experience with speech and debate in college was the first time where I felt like I could be myself. I remember early in high school that I was trying to be this hybrid of some kind of jock/intelligent person. I loved playing and watching football and didn’t give in as much to my inner geek. Forensics changed that. I was allowed to be who I was, which is a nerd. I love being a nerd. I am ok with being a nerd (Nerds are taking over). And I was surrounded by intelligent people who were much smarter than me. It gave me the freedom to be and seem smart.
Second, I got a taste for the finer things in life. I remember early in my freshman year that we went to a speech tournament (for those that don’t know the collegiate speech season runs from September to April and if you are hard-core and I was there is basically a tournament every weekend) and went out to eat at this nice restaurant. I watched my coach, who knew the owners, order us an extremely nice meal and I didn’t have to pay for it. The college paid for it (it was like being an athlete…hotels, meals, and transportation were provided). I remember thinking to myself I wanted this life. I wanted to go out to restaurants and know people and be connected. I was fascinated and hooked. I wanted that because I didn’t have much of that experience at home. My parents aren’t fancy people. They never really travel. They live in a simple house. They don’t get out much. I wanted something different.
Third, I learned to appreciate a diverse group of people. In forensics I have never met a more diverse group of people in my life. I grew up in a traditional white middle-class community where I barely knew any person of color or who was part of the LGBTQ community or who were rich or poor or whatever. In forensics for the first time in my life I got all of that. At first I thought it was a little weird. I wasn’t used to it. But as I think about it I am so glad I got to meet people from all different walks of life because it made my inner-core beliefs that much stronger.
Fourth, I enhanced my love of travel. I have been to 48 out 50 states in the USA. And I can say that over half of them I first experienced while traveling in a van for hours on end on some speech tournament. Like I said my parents never went on vacation much. I went to Mexico in high school, but I paid for it and it was a class trip. I was never exposed to the travel bug. In speech and debate, practically every weekend I was driving with about 12-15 other students to exotic locals like Peoria, IL, Lincoln, NE, Brookings, SD, Mankato, MN, Wichita, KS and we flew to Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Ohio, Washington, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and other states. I got to see more of America because of this activity than I would have ever had in any other experience.
Fifth, I learned to love a college campus. I fully admit I love college students. My favorite time of year is fall and spring. I am not a fan of summer. It is too hot. I don’t have a beach body and I never really enjoyed summer as a kid. However, in speech and debate I got to visit dozens of college campuses across the country of all different stripes. I have come to love a college campus. I am at home on a college campus. I love seeing the kids move in during the fall. Graduation is always a bitter-sweet moment for me. I love teaching and the intellectual atmosphere and debating, researching, etc. All of that can be traced back to speech and debate. I count the days during the summer until the fall starts. I am home on a college campus and would live there if I could.
Sixth, profound life moments occurred there. I still remember the conversation I had with my mentor that would change the path of my life. It was in late Spring 1999. During the previous year I had graduated with my first master’s degree, moved to Oregon, moved back to Minnesota, gotten a divorce, worked four jobs, and started drinking a bit too much. We were at a tournament and my mentor pulled me aside and asked me why I wasn’t going to graduate school in Communication Studies. While my first master’s degree was in Political Science, my thesis topic was related to communication. In fact, my first publication came from that thesis in a communication journal. I answered him that I didn’t have an excuse and I thought about his own experience with speech and debate. That story/conversation changed my life. I immediately went home after the tournament and began the process to apply back to graduate school. I had no idea I would be doing what I am today. The truth is I just wanted to be a speech and debate coach, but alas that didn’t happen.
Finally, I learned to argue and communicate there. According to employer surveys, oral communication is the #1 skill that they desire in new employees. My experience with speech and debate gave me that experience in spades. More profoundly, speech and debate really honed my ability to organize thoughts, actions, do research, speak on a single question in a fairly in-depth way in a short period of time. It really taught me focus. It taught me how to argue and argue well. I still use those lessons every single day. My thinking is directly influenced by it.
The Bottom Line: Everyone of us has an experience, an organization, a person, a moment in time where they have profoundly changed our lives (hopefully for the better). My experience in forensics was my defining time. I spent two years in high school (just sort of knowing I liked it), four years in college, and six years coaching at the college level. My experience(s) in that activity, along with the people I met, altered the trajectory of my life for the better. I wish everyone could have that kind of profound experience.
So my question to readers is what specific experience, event, place or whatever impacted your life? Why? I would love to see comments below.