EVHS Speech & Debate Prevails Over Distance Learning Struggles

EVSD has earned many triumphs after facing various challenges presented by COVID-19 restrictions.


Evergreen Valley Speech & Debate

EVSD members from previous years pose for a club photo, wearing team apparel to signify their unity.

Christina Huang and Inaya Yusuf

As one of the largest clubs on campus, EVSD has had mixed experiences with distance learning but has ultimately emerged as successful and resilient. While many other clubs at EVHS experienced similar struggles with adapting to online restrictions, EVSD has had obstacles unique to a club that relies on the power of the spoken word.

One crucial issue that was greatly exacerbated by distance learning was the lack of donations. “There were a few places we struggled with this year, and one was donations,” said Sahana Noru, a senior and one of Evergreen Valley Speech & Debate co-presidents. “Normally Speech & Debate takes a lot of money to run, especially since we’re attending more tournaments this year, but because everything was online it was harder to convince people to donate.”

When asked about changes they would make for next year, Shray Kudva, a junior, current vice president, as well as future president of EVSD, said, “Personally, I would start by focusing on fundraising, because I feel like that was the biggest issue this year.” He clarified that “We had a pretty optimistic idea on how many fundraising opportunities there would be and the amount of funds that we would be receiving. We completely overshot it at the beginning of the year.” 

The main reason the club had a greater struggle with donations was limitations on communication that came with distance learning. “Especially freshmen, who, since obviously they’re kind of new to EVSD and they’re pretty confused with everything being [in] distance learning, we had to hold a lot more events in order to get more donations,” mentioned Noru, adding that one thing that proved to be unexpectedly difficult was “introducing freshmen to the club. I personally haven’t talked to as many freshmen as I would’ve if we were in person, and I know a lot of them were still pretty confused about how to actually join the club, and how to meet new people and decide which events they wanted to do.”

In order to catch the freshmen and other new members up to speed, Noru mentioned that “One of our events tried to implement an upperclassmen mentoring type of thing where people who were new to Speech and Debate were paired with an upperclassman who could help guide them through debate or speech or whatever they were doing and help them get introduced to the club. I know some of the subdivisions that tried to do that this year.” This seemed to be an effective method, as Tvishi Irigi, a current freshman participating in Public Forum Debate, admitted that “a good aspect about virtual PF [Public Forum] is that it’s easier to communicate with peers and captains.”

Another challenge posed by limitations on communication that many other clubs faced this year was attracting new members. However, the Speech & Debate officers appeared to be well-prepared to adapt using online tools, with social media playing a significant role. Yashika Batra, a current senior and co-president of the club, described how they attracted new members through “making use of the digital platforms we had.” She elaborated on the various methods they utilized to spread word of the club: “We had our officers change their profile pictures on Facebook and Instagram, we had people posting on their stories, and then we also had a QR code on all of our fliers that made it really easy for everyone to get the information they needed.” 

The flyer for Club Week 2020, advertising EVSD to potential members. (credit: Yashika Batra, EVSD Facebook Group Post)

Batra mentioned that one positive result from utilizing online tools to advertise the club was that “We got a lot more parent support this year in terms of the amount of time they were able to volunteer.” She compared it to previous years, since “Normally, when parents have to physically be there or if they have work obligations it’s a lot more difficult, but because everything is online, like judging, even on weekdays, is as easy as switching from one call to another one.”

While EVSD did manage to successfully adapt to the major obstacle of communication restrictions, they also altered their practice meeting structures to accommodate for changes with distance learning. Before COVID-19, Kudva described how “We had club-wide meetings traditionally where we would meet near Cougar Hall or in the [EVHS] library almost weekly. As time went on, we had different events split up, the Parliamentary team would meet behind the Village Square Library, the Public Forum team met in Sophie’s Grill, so more and more events were branching out. We were having practices maybe twice a week, in different locations. That was helpful for us because it helped us build more team unity.”

However, he continued to compare how this strictly set schedule changed by the 2020 to 2021 school year: “As we shifted to distance learning, there wasn’t really a set schedule. We will have a club-wide meeting once a month or so, but every event has the capacity to set up a meeting whenever they deem fit. Parliamentary has a junior varsity practice on one day and practice for varsity another day. For PF, there’s really no set schedule but they meet typically on Wednesdays at 5 pm. However, Public Forum and LD [Lincoln Douglas] are both very preparation intensive so people will be working at crazy hours. Nothing is really set for those besides the designated meeting at 5 pm, but we all meet whenever we can.” 

For Amna Aslam, a sophomore new to the club and currently participating in Parliamentary, “being in debate during quarantine made it easier to attend [these] practice[s],” especially due to their less strict timing and location. Ruthwika Gajjala, a sophomore competing in Original Oratory (OO) for her second year, admitted that “It was not as easy to practice presentation due to technical difficulties and camera issues, making it harder to practice expressions and overall presenting the speech.” However, she also expressed positive sentiments about the new structure for practices similar to those shared by Aslam: “During distance learning we really had more one-on-one learning due to us usually being in breakout rooms, which really allowed me to get more feedback and tips on my speech.”

As for the monthly club-wide meetings, the officers chose to focus on maintaining a sense of unity throughout the club, which had become an increasingly difficult task since distance learning had begun. Kudva explained how unity became an active goal in every club-wide meeting: “We’d play games within the club, we’d play Among Us, or we’d have these cool different types of games like Mad Libs almost, we’d just fill in words. It was fun, so what we tried to do was we tried to play games and tried to keep it less serious than other years had typically done before, and not make club-wide meetings a two hour long lecture where people are just sitting down and listening.” Noru recalled how such activities were not usually included in their in-person club-wide meetings since “it was a lot easier to get to know each other.”

The club similarly adapted these techniques for practices and club-wide meetings on an even larger scale, with what is often seen as the culmination of EVSD’s collective efforts: tournaments. However, officers and general members alike felt that there were certain aspects of the competitions that were irreplaceable. 

“Tournaments used to be very, very social events. It would basically be around 50-60 people from Speech & Debate meeting up on a college campus and more often than not we would be sitting around in circles and going to team lunches,” Batra recounted. Kudva concurred, then adding, “But we tried to foster that idea of the team being together and unified by hyping everyone up on a Zoom call and laying out the instructions beforehand for online tournament procedures. Some events even have Discord [servers] that they communicate on.”

EVSD members at a previous Santa Clara University Tournament, one of which has been held online this year. (credit: evsd.club)

Validating the expectations of the officers, Irigi, experiencing both her first year of highschool and of EVSD through distance learning, stated that “not having the experience of in person tournaments” was a major downside to being restricted to online systems. Aslam, as another first-year debater, agreed that it was disappointing that “it was harder to get to know club members and that we didn’t get to do in person competitions, which I’ve heard are a lot more fun.”

However, the officers admitted that logistically, online tournaments were a major success for the club this year. Co-President Batra explained that “When we’re at tournaments normally the executive team–the president[s] and vice-president[s]–are kind of running around for the entirety of the tournament coordinating between the different teams, between the tournament officials, and others on campus. It was easier to have that streamlined communication this year because of online systems.”

Noru added that many requirements and restrictions that would normally cause issues in the past were hardly an obstacle this year: “We needed less supervision which was a problem for us in the past because we had to find supervision to come on campus with us when tournaments were actually in person. However, because tournaments are now online, we only needed online supervision, which was a lot easier to find. Also, we were able to attend tournaments from the East Coast and other places we wouldn’t be able to physically go to if we were in-person.”

The results of a streamlined logistical process for tournaments were clearly evident, with Batra stating that “we attended twice as many tournaments as we would normally attend.” And while the consensus concluded that missing out on certain social aspects of in-person tournaments were a negative consequence, Kudva stated that the stigma surrounding Speech & Debate, both for joining the club and for tournaments, was partially lifted. Batra continued that the increased number of tournaments gave newer members additional experience necessary for thriving in Speech & Debate.

Vice President Kudva also mentioned that “We had a tournament recently called the Evergreen Invitational in February and it went really well for us. It was able to get us a lot of exposure on the debate circuit and speech circuit.” Additionally, it provided EVSD with much-needed funds as “a great money-making opportunity that helped us fund our events for Speech & Debate, which we needed since we went to so many tournaments this year. If we had known this was going to happen, I would have loved for EVSD to host another tournament.”

While tournaments were definitely a huge success despite some missing social aspects, EVSD’s biggest accomplishment by far during distance learning was its success in keeping the club united and vocal throughout what was one of the most difficult points in time for many of its members. “I want to say I’m very proud of the entire team of EVSD. I know that’s pretty cheesy to say, like, ‘Oh, I’ve never been surrounded by so many great people who were able to overcome so many obstacles,’ but I’m beyond impressed with our club and how well we’ve been able to do despite all the obstacles we’ve faced, like, a lack of funding, limited coaching opportunities,” said Kudva. 

Batra and Noru were both quick in their agreement. Batra expressed that she was “blown away” by their officer team’s ability to adapt to the various restrictions to support their members’ ambitions in accomplishing so much over the course of distance learning.

She concluded, “I have a newfound respect for EV students for being so resilient during times like this.”