original article appeared in the November 24, 2020 edition of the Tri-City Voice
In 2012, Samanvitha Basole, then a sophomore at American High School in Fremont, joined the Youth Leadership Program (YLP), a public speaking club sponsored by the Union City Toastmasters geared towards middle and high school students. Once a week for 8 weeks, she and 13 other participants learned the essential elements of public speaking, culminating in a final competition and graduation.
Fast forward to the present, 8 years later. Samantha, or Sam, as she likes to be called, is now President of the Newark Toastmasters and coordinating her own YLP for students from the Tri-Valley area. “So many students are sitting at home now without any activities to keep them engaged,” explains Basole. “I thought this would be a nice way to give back to the community.”
Now the student has become the teacher. That initial experience in 2012, due in large part to encouragement from her dad, opened Basole’s eyes to the power of effective presentations. No longer confined to rote memorization, her confidence grew as she learned about gestures, vocal variety, and eye contact. Says Basole,” Memorizing my speeches made me feel very fake. Although the thoughts and writing were mine, delivering a memorized speech would always block my natural flow of words. Through Toastmasters, I realized that I didn’t have to be a machine that spits out words constantly.”
After high school, Basole went on to study software engineering at San Jose State University. She became convinced that consistent effort was the key to success, and so she joined Toastmasters International to help her practice her leadership and communication skills. When COVID-19 hit, it changed the way people communicated to an online model. Basole saw an opportunity to use her skills to help students adapt to this brave new world.
Toastmasters is typically for adults ages 18 and over. The YLP was created to introduce younger students to the Toastmasters culture, and can be initiated by anyone as long as they adhere to certain procedures. A current Toastmasters member is chosen to coordinate meetings, which are modeled after a Toastmasters club meeting, with an announced agenda that includes practice in parliamentary procedure, prepared and impromptu speeches and the selection of presiding officers. Participants are chosen by a sponsoring Toastmasters club or by a cooperating organization (such as a school). After the program ends, students are encouraged to form their own Gavel Club, a type of Toastmasters Junior.
Basole’s workshop, which began on September 12, runs once a week for 10 weeks, on Saturdays from 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. Every week Basole invites an experienced Toastmasters speaker to give a speech and a few tips based on the the theme of the meeting. The group of 14 students also take turns giving speeches, evaluating presentations, and timing each other. At the end of the program there will be a Table Topic Contest in which students are given a random topic and need to improvise a speech, as well as an International Speech Contest, where students have 4-5 minutes to give a prepared speech.
This year’s Table Topics Contest ended in a tie between Sohan Dillikar and Trisha Tiwary. Prepared Speech Contest results: 1st Place: Lauren Wang, 2nd Place: Sriya Katreddi, 3rd Place: Sai Gayathri Penugonda
The online format of the program has not been without its challenges, admits Basole. Sometimes the wifi connection isn’t working or there is audio breakup. Students need to remember to have their camera on at all times, and body movements and gestures are limited. But despite these technical difficulties, Basole is confident that her students are learning life-changing skills. Her students agree:
“Before I joined YLP I was scared to speak about something and my palms would be sweaty. Now after some sessions of YLP, I feel that speaking about something is a fun experience.”
– Hirithik Pranav Balusamy
“My YLP experience has been eye-opening and I’ve been able to learn from others and improve upon my communication skills from topics such as listening, organizing speeches, and impromptu speaking. YLP is not only a program that teaches you public speaking; it’s also a program that builds LEADERS.”
– Lauren Wang
“Now I am more conscious of filler words in my speech and trying to make it more interesting. I am now more alert when someone speaks and unconsciously evaluating their speeches by looking for main ideas. I particularly like table topic speeches which makes you quickly think on your feet and come up with a small speech instantaneously.”
– Sai Gayathri Penugonda
Basole is the first to admit that she still has a lot to learn. But she is excited about her future prospects and hopes to inspire her students through her own experiences. “Public speaking skills are always in demand,“ she smiles. “To speak from the heart, to be authentic and connect with your audience, that’s always my goal.” It’s an important message, and especially relevant during these unprecedented times.
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Photos courtesy of Newark Toastmasters