When Jill Castle walked into the classroom for her first day of the Intercollegiate Forensics course at Saginaw Valley State University, she did not fully realize she was joining the forensics team. What she thought was an upper division 3-credit communication course turned out to be an opportunity of a lifetime.
Castle, a communication major from Standish, has qualified to compete against the best forensics students in the country during the 2018 National Forensic Association National Championship tournament scheduled April 19-23 at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
She will be joined by two of her classmates from the SVSU forensics team; the strong collective showing led to the group's third-place showing during the fall Michigan Intercollegiate Speech League tournament at Oakland University Dec. 9.
Castle earned a first-place individual award in the After Dinner Speaking category. As a result, she qualified to advance to the national contest along with fellow SVSU students Jrew Brickel, a criminal justice major from Midland, and Tiler Jewell, a creative writing major from Essexville. Brickel earned a fourth-place finish in the Extemporaneous Speaking category and Jewell placed fifth in the Informative category.
Castle's fortuitous registration for the forensics team landed her in the middle of a close-knit group of students working together to compete in local, regional, and state level competitions based on individual public speaking and debate skills.
"Unlike other colleges, my goal for this team is purely educational instead of competitive," said Amy Pierce, associate professor of communication and forensics team advisor. "Winning is always fun, of course, but I want my students to learn from these events more than anything."
After competing in similar events in high school, Pierce understood the experience builds valuable skills among the competitors. With these principles in mind, Pierce has been directing the team since she founded it in 2001.
The benefits of her different approach to competitive public speaking are not lost on her students.
"Dr. Pierce's educational philosophy has taken so much pressure off of me," said Gina Kearly, a communication major from Midland. "This has allowed me the opportunity to cultivate important skills that are incredibly valuable in all aspects of life, not just forensics."
In the December tournament, Kearly placed third for her presentation in the Rhetorical Criticism category.
"The speeches are required to be 10 minutes long, so understanding what information is important for each argument is vital," Kearly said.
Kearly added that these competitions have helped her learn to lose, to network, and how to take constructive criticism.
This educational philosophy is what draws students from all majors, not just communication. Pierce said that she finds a lot of education, political science, and criminal justice majors in her Intercollegiate Forensics classroom.
The first few months of the class Castle stumbled upon are dedicated to writing speech outlines, researching topics, and helping students choose drama scenes or pieces of poetry for their interpretive performances, Pierce explained.
"Once everything is set, it's all about rehearsing for competition, constantly editing, revising, and perfecting their performances," she said.
Although she mainly focuses on how students can learn from these competitions, Pierce still understands the importance of doing well in these events. Because of this, she equips her students with the right tools to succeed in each area of competition, which is exactly what they did in the December tournament.
Many of the participants from SVSU were considered novice, meaning they have competed in fewer than six competitions in their forensics careers. The best novice speaker in each event is awarded Top Novice. Out of the 11 awards presented at the tournament, seven were given to SVSU students.
Kearly and her partner Kelley Gray, a communication major from Sandusky, won third place for their duo performance in Dramatic Interpretation.
Allison Milke, a communication major from Macomb, took third place for her persuasive performance and Jayla Jenkins, a communication major from Detroit, won Top Novice for both her sixth place performance in Dramatic Interpretation and second place presentation for Programmed Oral Interpretation.
Castle competed in the After Dinner portion of the event, designed as a humorous approach to persuasive speaking. Her speech on bisexual inclusion landed her in first place and earned a Top Novice recognition.
Happenstance may have brought her to the forensics team, but natural talent and a love for competitive public speaking has made her stay.
"Forensics has developed so much more than just my speaking skills,” Castle said. “When you join this team, you gain public speaking skills, critical thinking skills, organization skills, and a family. "