Alumni Perspective

The views expressed in articles written by guest authors are the authors’ alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Stoa or the Stoa Alumni Committee.

Introduction from the new New Chair

Kate Creecy

Greetings!

To be honest, as I began writing this letter, my fingers (wanting to satisfy my first inclination) started with an introduction and typed out my name. Then, I recalled the opening letter of this issue of the Alumni Post, and I smiled at the irony. I suppose the idea of identity really is ingrained into our brains. We want to talk about who we are. Perhaps we find it less easy to talk about whose we are.

When I think about identity and labels, I think of the book “You are Special” by Max Lucado. The story follows a wooden boy named Punchinello. (No, his name is not Pinocchio.) This young protagonist lives in a village with other wooden people. The woodcarver, their creator, lives on a hill above the village.

The villagers have decided to express their opinions by giving each other stickers. When they want to express positive opinions or congratulate someone, they stick a star on that person. When they want to express negative opinions or belittle someone, they stick a dot on that person. Punchinello often finds himself covered in dots.

One day, the wooden boy meets a wooden lady named Lucia. He notices that, oddly enough, stickers do not stick to her. Some of the villagers admire her for having no dots, so they try to stick a star on her. Other villagers look down on her for having no stars, so they try to stick a dot on her. But both the dots and the stars simply fall off.

Punchinello wonders how this can be. Lucia tells him, “Oh, it’s easy. Every day I go to the workshop, and I sit with the woodcarver.”

What profound wisdom in such a simple statement. Do we sit every day with our Creator? If we did, perhaps the “stars” and “dots” that cling to us would lose some of their stickiness.

Philippians 3:7-12 calls us to this mindset: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”

May we take hold of Christ and what He has for us. May we count all else as loss. May God help us, for we cannot do this in our own strength.

I greatly look forward to the future and to chairing this committee. Thank you to the excellent team that I serve with and the other leaders in Stoa who serve as well. Thank you to the alumni for participating in what this committee does. We always welcome your comments and questions.

Best,
Kate


Bursting Bubbles

Peter Dykstra

“Do You Live in a Political Bubble?” The New York Times released an interactive tool last month to help you find out! Reporting on a study published in Nature Human Behavior, the authors looked at the registration data of every registered voter in the United States – more than 180 million people – and found that “a large proportion of voters live with virtually no exposure to voters from the other party in their residential environment.”

If you’ve paid attention to the cultural discourse over the past decade, this fact comes as no surprise. Polarization, sectarianism, and negative partisanship have rankled our body politic to an unprecedented degree and you’ve probably experienced the effects of these trends in your own life. Bubbles exist in politics, religion, race, universities, jobs, neighborhoods, and even in churches and families. These problems might feel too far-reaching for one individual to make real change, but I disagree. Each of us has the tools and opportunities to pop these bubbles, and I’d argue that for societal, individual, and moral reasons, your experience with speech and debate uniquely qualifies and charges you to burst your surrounding bubbles.

First off, speech and debate alumni should burst bubbles for the sake of public speaking and societal discourse. You may have joked during your competition years about how people should join Stoa to get over their fear of public speaking by speaking in front of a lot of people. While that’s a great benefit, public speaking is a lot more than speaking in front of people in public. It’s really about speaking to the public. Being outside of tournament rounds and having access to the internet means it’s easier to speak about public issues than ever before. And if you agree that polarization, outrage, and animosity from bubbles are damaging our society, you should be encouraged that as alumni we have the skills to speak to these problems and to change the dynamic of cultural conversations. Each of us has had the preparation to feel comfortable speaking to and with many different types of people. We should use the platforms and voices we have to engage people who are different from us and to do so with honor and respect.

Communication is far more than finding the biggest loudspeaker and aiming it at a crowd of people. In many respects, it’s more important to use communication to break down barriers and make connections at the individual level – think quality vs quantity. Consider what speech and debate taught you about engaging with others. You had to tailor your speech to the judges in the room, regardless of how different from you they might be. It didn’t matter how correct you thought you were or how many members of the audience thought you nailed your performance, your chances of success were slim to none if you didn’t connect with the person holding the ballot. The debate custom of asking for judging philosophy or background is crucial because building bridges with a parent judge, community judge, or an alumni judge requires you to communicate differently and uniquely with each audience. Take that same humble approach when you engage someone in a different bubble who might have a different way of seeing the world. Connecting individually is key.

The reasons to pick up your speech and debate toolbox and step out of your comfort zone extend beyond speaking with people, both at large and individually. God commands us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37,39). There are no qualifications on the command to love your neighbor as yourself saying that it only applies as long as your neighbor looks like you, votes like you, worships like you, or even posts on social media like you. Stoa trained each of us to speak with grace, truth, and beauty. We constantly face opportunities to engage with our neighbors in a Christ-like way to break through polarized bubbles and change the world for Christ. Our shared experience as speech and debate alumni means each of us can engage well, in a way that honors God.

What’s next? How do you take the steps to burst through your bubbles? The first and often hardest step is to see the bubbles that envelop you. Exercises like the interactive tool above can help reveal where you’re starting from. But honestly, you can also tell by considering if you’re surrounded in your daily life only by people who think and act like you. The next step is to look for soft points, maybe where your bubble overlaps with someone different who works with you or is in your college class. Finally, you must have real conversations with real respect. If you’re arguing like a judge is going to give you a win or a loss, you’ve already lost.

I live in a bubble. Many bubbles, actually. According to the New York Times tool, I live in a political bubble – only twelve percent of my nearest neighbors are Republicans. I also work and worship in a bubble, as a Christian pursuing a PhD in bioengineering and as a Christian in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m also the product of the same homeschool speech and debate bubble that connects all of us, with its unique pros and cons. As the first chair of Stoa’s Alumni Committee, I’ve spent significant time over the past couple of years considering the role that alumni play in today’s world. My biggest takeaway is a challenge for each alumnus and alumna to consider the bubbles they inhabit and to view their speech and debate skills as the means to break out. You have a unique readiness to meet this cultural moment. Will you?

Peter Dykstra competed with Paradigm in San Diego, CA, and graduated in 2011. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Bioengineering: Biotechnology from University of California, San Diego in 2015 and a master’s degree in Bioengineering from Stanford University in 2017. Peter has been the inaugural Chair of Stoa’s Alumni Committee since 2019. He is currently finishing his studies as a bioengineering PhD candidate at Stanford where he focuses on the intersection of synthetic biology and regenerative medicine. He also works on policy issues around biosecurity and bioethics. Peter can be reached at peter.b.dykstra@gmail.com


A Case for Countering Campus Pornography

Veronica Maska

When Stoa says it trains students to speak boldly, it’s not kidding.

Within two months of starting college, I took on the role of policy director for a student-run campaign to block access to the top 20 pornography websites on university-provided Wi-Fi. We, as Notre Dame students, wanted to use our voices to speak against the insidious harm of pornography to individuals and relationships by inspiring our university to act.

As a newly arrived freshman, my lunches became meetings with student government leaders. I made friends with university administrators as I conducted outreach. Picking up the phone, I interviewed IT directors at various universities about the technical methods for filtering websites.

None of this would have been possible without high school speech and debate which equipped me to write policy proposals, prepare talking points, and build coalitions.

Pornography filter initiatives on campus Wi-Fi present an opportunity for advocacy that is tailored both to the skills and values of Stoa alumni and the needs of the college environment.

For the remainder of this reflection, I will articulate my strategy for pornography filter advocacy. This strategy is the fruit of three years of leadership in the Wi-Fi filtering campaign at Notre Dame and interviews with leaders of similar campaigns at other colleges. While Notre Dame has not yet implemented a filter, the Notre Dame campaign inspired two successful campaigns at other schools (Catholic University of America and the University of Dallas), generated 17,000 petition signatures, and sparked over 100 national news articles, including an ABC News Nightline segment.

My hope is that fellow Stoa alumni will be inspired to take similar action.

Strategy Summary

The best way to address the problem of pornography on campus is to launch a campaign for a pornography filter on university-provided Wi-Fi. This will start a policy conversation about the proper institutional response to pornography, which can then be leveraged to bring the personal dimension of pornography to light and open doors to recovery.

Why address pornography at college?

College students have extremely high levels of pornography use and suffer the consequences that stem from pornography’s objectification of persons. A 2018 study put the percent of adult men who view pornography between 91% and 99% with the number of adult women between 60% and 92%. Additionally, the study found that “A small, general decrease of pornography consumption occurred across age for both genders”, which does not bode well for college students who sit at the very start of the adult age range. Research reveals that treating people on a screen as objects for sexual pleasure has consequences for interactions off-screen. A 2016 meta-analysis of 135 peer-reviewed studies found that men who view pornography have a diminished view of women’s morality and humanity. A 2015 literature review of 22 studies from seven different countries found that pornography is linked to sexual aggression, which is highly concerning in the context of a campus environment. According to a 2017 meta-analysis, pornography is linked to “lower interpersonal satisfaction outcomes,” in relationships. Moreover, pornography is involved in over 50% of divorce cases.

I have found that colleges are generally open to considering student proposals about campus life. Students frequently pursue advocacy through passing legislation in student government, partnering with the office that establishes campus standards of community conduct, and petitioning university administration to set new policies. At most colleges, it is surprisingly easy to start a signature petition, write an article for the school paper, host debates, and lectures, and organize initiatives through clubs and organizations.

Additionally, college administrations take note of students who challenge the narrative that pornography is harmless. There is certain credence to students’ claims because the porn-saturated campus is their lived experience. Most students know the effect of pornography first or secondhand.

Why filter Wi-Fi?

First, a filter ensures that university resources are not used to perpetuate a base degradation of human dignity that is harmful to the health, safety, and relationships of the student body. Second, a filter sends a clear institutional message against pornography. A filter is admittedly incapable of preventing students from accessing pornography on their cellular networks and is not intended to cut off all access to porn. But students will get the message that the university takes pornography seriously, particularly if they consistently need to disconnect from university Wi-Fi in order to view it.

Will a filter impact students?

Proposing a pornography filter is the most effective way I know to help students who personally want to stop using porn. This is because the filter is guaranteed to launch a lively campus debate which can be used to meet students where they are and aid them in what is often a silent struggle.

At Notre Dame and elsewhere, the filtering campaign started a robust discussion on the previously rare and dreaded “P” word. Discussing the merits of a filter policy does not require individuals to divulge too much of their own personal history, so the filter instantly became the hottest topic on campus. From the collective response of the student body, the filtering campaign has clearly hit a nerve. Over 1,000 students at Notre Dame signed the petition calling for the filter, a host of students volunteered with the campaign, and op-eds flew back and forth in the school paper.

As a student leader, I heard from several peers who courageously revealed their appreciation for the campaign efforts given their personal struggles with pornography. I began to suspect that the students who confided in me were emblematic of many more students whose personal struggle with pornography was driving involvement with the movement.

Survey data backs up my intuition. At any given moment, 19% of Christian adults are trying to quit porn, according to a 2016 study. In a 2017 survey of over 3,000 Catholic college students, 42% responded that they “struggle” with porn. To emphasize this point, these are students who want to quit porn, not students that simply view porn.

How to address students’ personal struggles?

In the face of this massive problem, filtering campaigns should be creative in opening discrete pathways to personal accountability that build on established relationships already in place on the college campus.

Just as a Wi-Fi network connects the campus, there is an equally strong social network that can be leveraged to heal the wounds inflicted by pornography. Colleges are in a unique position to help students that struggle with pornography because students already have trusted friends, counselors, and religious guides on campus. If these networks can be activated to send a standing offer for help if and when a student struggles with pornography, the stigma that keeps many students from opening up about pornography could be bypassed or mitigated.

Initiatives in this vein include hosting trainings for students on how to walk with friends struggling with pornography addictions in order to prepare willing students to send a standing offer to their closest friends to help. Inconspicuously distributing resource sheets with information on campus professionals who are willing to help with pornography is another option. At Notre Dame, the club that organized the filtering campaign staples a pornography resource sheet to the back of every handout and lecture program it hands out. The guiding principle for personal outreach on pornography is to find methods specific to your campus’s resources and sensibilities.

In summary, the first goal of a filtering campaign is achieving an institutional response to the pornography pandemic with a Wi-Fi filter, but the second (and perhaps most consequential goal) is capitalizing on campus discourse about pornography to extend offers to accompany close friends to find freedom from porn.

So, to current and future college students: How boldly are you willing to speak for Christ?

Veronica Maska graduated in 2018 and competed in speech and debate for a total of five years. She is a junior at the University of Notre Dame but vastly prefers the warmer temperatures of her home state of Texas to Northern Indiana. She is pursuing a degree in Business Analytics and is a member of the Beta Gamma Sigma business honors society. Veronica is passionate about defending the dignity of the human person and has served as Co-President and Public Policy Officer of Students for Child-Oriented Policy, a student club at Notre Dame that advocates in the interest of children on the issues of education, adoption, drugs, pornography, and marriage policy. Students for Child-Oriented Policy launched the first collegiate pornography filter initiative in the fall of 2018. If you would like to learn more about pornography filtering campaigns or are interested in starting your own campus initiative, you can reach Veronica at collegefiltercampaign@gmail.com.

The views expressed in pieces written by guest authors are the authors’ alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Stoa or the Stoa Alumni Committee.



Good Art by Bad People

Katherine Baker

Amidst the backdrop of social media and greater exposure to issues of racism and sexism, “Cancel Culture” feels like a new phenomenon of the 21st century. Our older siblings or parents might chuckle and say, “We called that being ‘politically correct’ back in my day.” The truth is that these ideas have been relevant throughout history—we’re just calling them by different names.

This “modern” conversation has permeated the art world for decades—centuries even. Beautiful paintings, music, and media have been created by deeply disturbed and deeply disturbing individuals.

As a classical musician myself, these ethical questions become hard to escape and imprudent to ignore. “Clair De Lune,” one famous example of musical brilliance, was composed by a womanizing, unfaithful man named Claude Debussy. And he was not the first to openly live a lifestyle contrary to biblical morality, or any morality for that matter.

So how do we rectify excellent art and evil people? Is there such a thing as good art by bad people?

Art is, inherently, a deeply personal form of expression. In music, the composer, musician, and listener may all take away different understandings from the same piece! Benjamin Zander delivered a speech on the transformative power of classical music, intending to prove that “everyone loves classical music; they just don’t know it yet!” He demonstrated this when working with kids in Ireland during its more tumultuous years. He played a piece by Chopin for Catholic and Protestant children while working with them on conflict resolution. The next day, one of the children came up to him: “You know, I never listened to classical music in my life. But when you played that piece… You know, my brother was shot last year, and I didn’t cry for him. But last night, when you played that piece, he was the one I was thinking about. And I felt the tears streaming down my face. And you know, it felt really good.”

Chopin did not write that particular piece for that particular child, but God was able to use it to bring healing in a way that only music can.

In Philippians 4:8, Paul urges the church of Philippi, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” When it comes to art, we must use this as our baseline, as our guide. When I play Clair De Lune, I become overwhelmed by the beautiful creative-power God gave us and allows us to express through music. Many similarly feel “touched” by a piece of art or “blown away” by the sheer thrill of a movie. The pure, personal emotion of music has greater power than the sin of the man behind it. God uses art to glorify Himself, even when the artist does not. By placing art into this light, we reclaim what sin corrupted and allow the artistic object to undergo transformation by all of art’s ultimate source: God’s beauty.

I do recognize that many cannot divorce art from the artist. There are books I have read that, knowing what I now know about the authors, I cannot read without becoming distracted. It is when you cannot meditate on the good, true, honorable, or other positive qualities that the art becomes inconsumable.

This standard also maintains a biblical basis. In the book of Romans, Paul addresses one of the many conflicts in the early church. He says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (Rom. 14:5-6) Paul’s mandate is clear: whatever you do, let it honor God. So, for some, they will not be able to honor Him while interacting with bad artists. But for those who can, God can redeem what was born in sin, much like he redeems our lives to him.

So, is there such a thing as good art by bad people? While I wish I could give a clear, straight-cut answer, what I can say is this: Art is only beautiful when we acknowledge God as the artist. Everything beautiful is only that way because it reflects God. No man, no matter how evil, can take that away.

Katherine Baker graduated from Stoa in 2017. She currently teaches piano, guitar, and ukulele in her private music studio, Joyful Noise Studio, which she has owned and operated for over 5 years. She enjoys staying involved with Stoa through working as a debate coach, Monument writer, and committee member.


Failing Forward

Taryn Enos

My whole life, I have often been called a perfectionist. While this trait served me well on the dance stage, I found that holding onto this attitude restrained me in today’s dynamic workplace. Competing in Stoa in a variety of events gave me the ability to speak, research, write, teach, and present. However, after participating at a high level in many activities in high school, I became excited to focus on and master one skill in my next stage of life. I chose to pursue modern, ballet, and hip hop dance.

Most new graduates face a similar challenge as we begin our first year of college, vocational school, or work: Going from a nationally awarded speaker down to a Starbucks barista is an emotional swing. Everything about graduating seemed like a letdown to me. Perhaps many of us have seen graduates struggle with feeling like they went from “successful” in high school to unknown in the real world. I remember being depressed and wondering, “Is there anything in the real world that has the same level of impact that speaking with Stoa had?”

Today, I work for Compassion International—a non-profit ministry that helps release children from poverty in multiple countries. I remember facing a panel of ten people who asked me how I would be able to be content with a desk job after working as a Contemporary and Hip Hop dancer for several years. I was unsure at the time how to respond.

The biggest challenge that arose within my first few months of working for Compassion was my perfectionism. My job includes certain performance metrics that I must meet every day on every interaction. Each week and each month, employees have a performance review on how we are doing compared to the average performance across the department. This process incited massive stress for me, as anything less than “perfection” felt like failure to me. I attached this feeling to my identity. I labeled myself as a failure.

I have noticed this same tendency in many of my fellow athletes, dancers, musicians, and other performance-based workers. Instead of seeing a single shortcoming as something we can move past, we react by labeling ourselves as “failures.” During those first few months at Compassion, I had the chance to discuss my perfectionism with multiple mentors, counselors, and coworkers. They helped me see that I needed change and perspective. These came by embracing a new mindset at work about failing.

Before the workplace, if I failed, it meant that I could not move forward with school or dance. After entering the workplace, I learned that falling short of the mark is normal. It will happen to all of us. I will never be good at something that I have only done a few times. It is unrealistic for me to think I can be “the best” at a new task that I just learned today. However, each time I fall short, I have another building block to place on my current experience. Each time I fall short, I fall forward.

I learned that each block of experience is valuable. Even if it is simply working for a week at a company and being fired shortly after. You will not hear many people say that to you, but it rings true in my experience.

I have learned to use my failures to help me learn more about where I am headed. This certainly requires a perspective change, but if a perfectionist like me can do it, then anyone can.

Taryn Enos is a Stoa graduate from 2016. She spent three years attending Fine Arts performance schools and working as a professional Modern and Hip Hop dance artist. After a major injury, she retired from dancing full time and moved back to Colorado Springs in 2019. Today, she works full time for Compassion International as a Sponsor Donor Relationship Specialist. She currently attends Grand Canyon University online to finish her B.A. in Communications with a concentration on Mass Media and Broadcasting. Her goal is to step into a Communications role at Compassion. In the future, she hopes to use her teaching and presentation skills to help other people reach their goals and dreams in life.


Finding the Balance

Isabelle Clausen

Ever since high school, I have made it my mission to search for “balance.” I constantly seek that perfect place between work and rest or between social time and personal recharge time. Most importantly, I long to gracefully walk the tightrope of giving control to God while also being a good steward of my responsibilities.

I talk with my peers about these issues, and I realize that this third point of balance represents a struggle for many of us. This summer, as I read through my study Bible, I came across a commentary explanation of a chapter in Proverbs. The line read: “We must maintain a delicate balance: Trusting God as if everything depended on Him, while working as if everything depended on us.”

I want that. Do you? How do we find the balance between trusting God as if everything depended on Him, while working as if everything depended on us? Where do we draw the line between self-dependence and dependence on God?

In the past year, I graduated from college, moved into my own apartment, and started my career. I learned that each morning when I woke up, I had to answer these questions for myself. To tell you the truth, I am still figuring this out. But, I encountered two things that I like to remind myself of each day as I try to find this “balance.”

Reminder #1: Trust that God will guide your footsteps.
I find myself worrying about the future quite often, over-thinking the uncertainties that lie ahead. Sometimes, I overthink so much that I forget to trust God with the matter in front of me.

I came across a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. a couple of weeks ago, and it gave me a new perspective about the future. He said, “You don’t have to see the whole staircase… Just take the first step.” When I read these words, they inspired me to look at my life’s journey in a new way. Oftentimes, I want to know exactly what God’s plan is for my life. I want to know each and every one of the steps on the staircase. However, if I truly want to trust God, I sometimes need to take that first step—even though I do not know what that future step looks like. God will show up for us in the midst of uncertainty if we seek Him and pray for guidance.

My roommate during my sophomore year of college always said that when she prayed to God about a decision, she would pray, “God, if this is from you, please make it work out. Show me a sign. Help me take the next step. But, God, if this is not from you, please take it away from me.” In this current season of my life where there are many pivots and uncertain steps on the staircase, I pray this prayer all the time. I need to realize that God is in control and that He will work things out in His timing because He wants what is best for us. Proverbs 19:21 reminds me, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.”

Reminder #2: Look back at all the ways that God has worked in your life previously.
One of my favorite worship songs is “See A Victory” by Elevation Worship. One section of the lyrics says, “You take what the enemy meant for evil and you turn it for good. You turn it for good.” I think back to times in my life when my heart felt disappointment and loneliness. I see that God not only put my broken pieces back together, but He also brought blessings from the hurt. He turned my mess into a message—a message to come back to, a message to cling to, a message to speak to others. Through all of the hard times, I can testify that the anthem the Lord has allowed me to hear over and over is, “I am all you need.” No matter what happens in life, He is always there for you. He will always pursue you, listen to you, cherish you, and push you to become a better version of yourself. When we take a moment to look at our past and see what God has done in our lives, we can use these memories as a source of strength and motivation as we work hard to accomplish our goals and impact the world.

As I have searched for the balance between giving control to God while also stewarding my responsibilities well, I have realized that this balance is found in trusting God and His plan for me. Because God has already written our life story, He knows what we need to accomplish each day. God will help us understand when we need to work and when we need to rest. Our responsibility is to trust Him and remind ourselves of all the ways He has guided us in the past. Proverbs 16:9 shares this truth in a beautiful way: “In their hearts, humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”

Isabelle Clausen is a Financial Advisor at Desert Wealth Management. At this firm, she utilizes her investment management and financial planning resources to create personalized plans for her clients to help them worry less about tomorrow and focus more on today. Isabelle graduated from Grand Canyon University in April 2020 with a major in Finance and Economics and a minor in Entrepreneurship. She wanted to become a financial adviser because she loved economics, people, and entrepreneurship. Isabelle could not think of a better career to combine these three passions! For students who have an interest in wealth management, Isabelle would highly recommend this career, as it is both brain-stimulating and life-giving. Isabelle’s goal is to help each of her clients feel confident in their financial future, comfortable in their lifestyle, and present in their everyday life.


Listening for Suprises

Katherine Kwong

My “impromptu moments” are experiences where the stakes are high, preparation is limited, and I am simultaneously excited and anxious. Interviewing poet and teacher Billy Collins on the book Robinson Crusoe was one such impromptu moment. You can’t predict these moments, but you can be prepared for them.

As a Stoa competitor from 2009-2013, I spoke through many rounds of limited preparation events, Lincoln Douglas debates, and Platform speeches. These events cultivate research skills and the ability to think on one’s feet; the latter an invaluable life skill. My time in Stoa prepared me for the surprises and rich work in a creative field like podcasting by cultivating the skills of listening, discerning, and dialoguing.

This process of listening well started with podcast internships and eventually culminated in an audio fellowship program in New York City. These experiences emphasized listening as an act of care for the interviewee. I found this emphasis everywhere in the industry. Conversations suffer if active listening is not present. The repeated instruction on this point made me wonder, “How could our conversations change if our first objective is care for the other person before our need for the right response?” I remember from Lincoln Douglas debate how rigorous cross-examinations were and how thrilling an admission of faulty logic was! But, then, I wondered if that same questioning skill could be converted into listening better to another person’s interpretation of a book or an idea.

Because of the fellowship program, I now host and produce my own podcast! This Book That Book is a narrative interview podcast discussing formative books we loved as kids. I hope my care for my guests injects a warmth and winsomeness to the interviews. The book choices are not always my favorite. Yet, it is often those books that yield the greatest surprises on tape.

During my interview on Robinson Crusoe, Collins spoke openly about the significance of Robinson Crusoe’s relationship to Friday, a reformed cannibal whom Crusoe rescues. I asked Collins to say more about the significance of it, not knowing how he would respond. Collins replied that these two characters exemplify a gift of friendship after a long isolation. Because I listened, and remained caring about Collin’s insights on the story, I might never have been surprised with this interpretation of the book.

Texts are full of surprises. Alumni and current competitors are familiar with Mars Hill Impromptu, which involves crafting a speech combining analysis of popular culture with application of faith. The event provides opportunities in discerning the culture we live in and engaging their surprises with curiosity. For example, I am editing an upcoming interview about The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. My interviewee talks at length about how the book helped her cement her Latina identity. In my response, I share how we all desire to “feel and be made whole.” Discerning this truth helped my interviewee feel comfortable enough to share intimately how comforting the story and its character were. When I uncover universal truths about the human condition through my interviews, it helps me understand both a book and a person in a new way.

Understanding someone else’s worldview is a key tenant of Mars Hill Impromptu. Seeking the elements of another’s worldview inevitably creates a dialogue. For me, I am always questioning when I enjoy other podcasts. Questions like, “What’s the main worldview here?” and “How is it expressed?” and “What perspective am I missing?” and “Why do I enjoy this?” play in my head. These questions apply to a myriad of media. As you combine these questions with curiosity and care, you will find that they go a long way in understanding something you might have otherwise disregarded. I love to share the episodes that encourage me towards joy and hope. The foundation I built in Stoa has only encouraged me in creating a show that builds on these themes.

No matter how much we prepare, surprises and uncertainty are part of life. They are both exhilarating and nerve-wracking. I could not have anticipated interviewing a poet laureate. Wherever you are now, consider your own impromptu moments. There is wonder and potential if we approach life as listeners who care and discern well in the moment. Surprises yield curious results, so dialogue with them! A well-placed “tell me more” is an opportunity to understand another’s person’s story. You have what you need for those moments – listen and you will be glad you found them.

Katherine Kwong is an audio-maker based in Southern California. After interning with both On Being Studios and The Moth Radio Hour, she attended the Stonybrook Audio Podcast Fellowship ’20 and turned a small idea about children’s books and friendship into This Book That Book. She is an enthusiastic customer experience representative for Warby Parker and uses the rest of her time to produce her show, read more Children’s books and watercolor. This Book That Book is her first podcast. You can find out more about the show at thisbookthatbook.org or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also follow the show for updates on Instagram @thisbookthatbookpodcast


Done Debating

Theresa Ramsay

I occasionally found myself missing debate last year, after graduating high school. Though I enjoyed my time as a college freshman, I toyed with the idea of starting a collegiate debate club with a fellow Stoa alumna to continue my previous competition experience. But while I stoked my nostalgia and daydreamed, I stumbled across a fourteenth-century letter that made me rethink my attitude towards debate.

Petrarch, a scholar and poet from Italy, wrote “against old dialectic cavilers”—somebody who “cavils” argues pettily, sometimes just for the sake of arguing. In his letter, Petrarch argued that, despite debate’s merits, we should not make debate the goal. He perceived debate’s potential not as an end but as a tool which “sharpens the intellect, marks off the path toward truth, and teaches how to avoid fallacies.” Most Stoa alumni could name similar advantages they gained from debate. I certainly benefited academically from my forensics experience. When I write an essay for a college class, I use the argumentation skills I developed through debate and frequently rely on the research abilities I honed from brief-building.

Petrarch goes on to qualify his praise of debate. He says that “there is nothing so ugly as an old man who is a dialectic debater.” That is, despite the usefulness of debate as an educational tool, it belongs properly to a certain age, a certain stage of life. Particularly, debate best belongs to adolescence—when we most actively prepare for adulthood.

Yes, debate promotes skills essential to modern Christians: we have a calling to defend Jesus, Truth Incarnate, which makes the ability to argue well of the highest importance. Competitive debate is artificial though. Topics are pre-determined, judges often share your worldview already, and arguments frequently stray into the abstract and theoretical. Artificiality can aid training but, at a certain point, we are called to use the skills we have developed—rather than just develop them unendingly. We need not cavil.

To quote Petrarch again: “where we pass with honor, we do not stay with praise.” As alumni of Stoa, we should view competitive debate as a stepping stone that lies behind us. We need to use the persuasive and rhetorical abilities that we developed through debate practically—in real-life situations. For instance, I recently canvassed for a pro-life organization, the Susan B. Anthony List, and asked undecided voters questions that I could not have phrased correctly without my cross-examination experience. Looking back, I have no doubt this opportunity was far better for me than returning to debate would have been.

Though a person might have good reason to extend their time in debate (perhaps to become a trial lawyer), I think we should leave competitive debate to high school-aged students. Even lawyers don’t debate for debate’s own sake but practice a profession. For this reason, I urge my fellow alumni, when returning to a tournament or coaching young debaters, to do so for their benefit and training—not to simply re-live the “gotcha” moments of your glory days. As Christian adults, we ought to give up “childish ways,” as St. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:11. Our training was a blessing but, in response to that gift, we now have an adult responsibility. We ought to grow up and move out of that which we find comfortable. We must not remain hidden away in competition rooms; we must take hold of our calling to speak boldly in real life.

Source:

The Renaissance Philosophy of Man. Edited by Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman Randall, Jr. The University of Chicago Press. 1984. “A Disapproval of an Unreasonable Use of the Discipline of Dialectic.” Francesco Petrarca.

Though thoroughly acclimated to the warm weather of her home state of Texas, Theresa Ramsay is currently facing much different temperatures at Wyoming Catholic College. At her school, she is a sophomore, president of the politics club, and the prose editor for a student-run literary journal (the Pigeonhole). She competed in speech and debate for a total of six years and, in Stoa, her favorite events were Apologetics, Team Policy, and Parliamentary Debate. She has had previous work published in the Pigeonhole and by the Foundation for Economic Education.


An Instrument of God

By Samuel Durand

“Soli Deo Gloria.” “Jesu Juva.”

Translated from Latin, these two statements read, “Glory to God alone,” and “Jesus, help.”

Johann Sebastian Bach, the monolithic Baroque keyboardist and composer, would often start and finish his pieces with the initials for these short sentences. Scribbling the letters “JJ” at the beginning and writing “SDG” at the end of the piece indicated his focus on God as he composed. He wrote music with the help of Jesus and for God’s glory alone.

I am a professional pianist, and the music of J.S. Bach forms a cornerstone of the repertoire musicians study and perform. Researching composers and music history is part of our discipline, and I often find myself in deep admiration of the example that Bach set for all of us.

A devout Lutheran, Bach established himself as a foundational figure in the history of music. Recognized as a master of technique, he played a large role in developing the modern method of fingering that we pianists and organists still use today. During his lifetime, he composed over one thousand pieces. Musicians today still stand in awe of his music and marvel at its ingenuity, beauty, and difficulty.

But what makes Bach so special to many is his deep commitment to his faith. Bach’s relationship with God appears in his music in many places. One of the most tangible indications stems from his lifelong habit of always ending his pieces in the major. Pieces in minor keys beautifully captivate your feelings and create despair and hopelessness, while major keys liberate you and triumphantly declare you redeemed. Even Bach’s most remorseful pieces end in a major chord, demonstrating his hope in salvation through Jesus Christ and his belief in life after death. Hearing our Christian theology in the music reminds me of the shared hope that we have and truly comforts me.

As a pianist, I both incredibly enjoy and intensely hate playing Bach’s music. It is so difficult to play! When I practice Bach’s music, I must be totally engaged – musically, mentally, and emotionally, which tires and challenges me. When I do not make the effort to completely focus, the music loses its life and becomes a waste of my time. The members of the audience do not care about just the notes. They desire and deserve the story behind the piece, and unless you throw all your energy into bringing the piece to life, it will feel dead. But, interestingly, when I engage in Bach’s music, I feel more connected to his music than to that of any other composer. The technical and musical challenges combined with the emotions inherent in his music make successful performances incredibly satisfying.

This is not an accident. Bach’s theological beliefs manifest themselves in the character and flow of his pieces. Many of his preludes take the form of a prayer put into sound as he takes us on a journey of repentance and sorrow. We can imagine Bach describing with music the feelings that we all have when confessing our sins.

I am a new Stoa alumnus, and I am currently studying at the Longy School of Music with Lithuanian pianist Andrius Zlabys. Although intensely focusing on music is good and necessary for music schools, most of them do not acknowledge the creator behind the music. Even though learning the music of Bach remains an important part of my musical training, the most valuable thing I see in Bach’s life is the fact that no matter what our vocation is, we should call on Jesus for help and seek to glorify God in all we do. Continually searching our lives and ensuring that we are committed to doing God’s will helps us to become more focused, satisfied, humble, and secure. I do not have to worry about the mistakes I make while performing (which inevitably happen), as I do not play for my glory, but, rather, I play to glorify God through his creation of music. Taking the spotlight off of me and putting it on our God has been a long journey that is still continuing, but it is absolutely worth the time and effort.

Whose ‘initials’ are on your work? I challenge myself and all of my fellow Stoa alumni to consider the ways that we can publicly witness and testify for God in the sphere He has given us. We do not have to ‘initialize’ everything we make, write, or create; but, we should follow Bach’s example in asking God for help and glorifying Him alone. When we turn our focus on God, it takes the stress out of our lives. It gives us purpose behind what we do, and, most importantly, we begin to fulfill the task that God created us for.

We were created to glorify God. God is the one who guides and strengthens us. We should give any credit we receive to Him. May our vocations and our lives be His instruments. As Bach would say to us, in summary:

“In nomine Jesu.”

Born and raised in central Arkansas, Samuel Durand studied piano from a young age at the Searcy Community School of Music under Dr. Scott Carrell. A recent Stoa graduate, Samuel was a member of SOAR, and qualified for NITOC in Original Oratory, Apologetics, and Demonstration. He enjoys playing in all styles of music but is especially drawn to that of the Baroque and French Impressionist periods. He is currently studying with Lithuanian pianist Andrius Zlabys at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In addition to playing the piano, Samuel conducts and composes music.


The Value of Simply Trying

by Laura Williamson

“If they’re not going to win, maybe they shouldn’t compete.”I heard this statement from the father of one of my students who was struggling to perform at tournaments. I know he meant well, but I believe the father’s mindset betrayed a lack of understanding regarding the educational value of speech and debate. Unfortunately, I encounter this mindset frequently in parents and alumni coaches.

A young man I knew competed for five years but never walked on stage for any event until the last three tournaments of his senior year of high school. Several of my students competed in debate from the ages of 12 to 17 before they advanced past preliminary rounds. Although I won a few trophies, I was not a “natural talent” at speech and debate. I lacked the required charismatic personality and confidence, and it took four years of tournaments for me to achieve competitive success.

Should students like me stop competing because they are not winning trophies? Absolutely not.

Persevering in spite of failure is important. Just ask Thomas Edison. He went through a thousand versions of the light bulb before he was able to produce one that worked. Even if students never have their proverbial “light bulb moment” of competitive success, they will still learn critical skills simply because of their participation.

Some of the most important lessons my students learn are about dressing professionally, getting their facts straight, and presenting themselves like composed adults—even if they are sick, sleep-deprived, or upset. Learning these lessons does not mean that my students will win trophies, but they will have an education that even college graduates may lack.

When I participated in a debate at an Ivy League university, I saw elite, college-aged students show up with their suit pants tucked into their socks (no, I am not kidding.) Many wore mismatched outfits that looked less professional than anything I have ever seen students wear to a Stoa tournament. Most of the debaters argued claims that were supported by few—if any—facts. More than one gave stammering speeches because of their nerves.

Even if a Stoa competitor never wins a trophy, they will leave our forensic league with better developed professional skills than what I observed at college tournaments. Even as high school students, they are more workplace-ready than some of their college counterparts.

Trophies are nice but have no intrinsic value. Many alumni have to throw their medals and trophies away when they move as adults. However, the grit of perseverance and the life skills that students learn from competing in speech and debate are of incalculable and enduring value.

As I write, I think of Proverbs 21:3 “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” We can prepare ourselves to win but whether we win is not up to us.

Students cannot compete in Stoa without having meaningful learning experiences that will distinguish them from their peers. Merely trying is invaluable, no matter what happens. The acts of trying to wear a professional-looking suit, trying to provide proof to support one’s claims, and trying to speak clearly build positive habits that last forever.

There is educational value in participation for its own sake because we will always finish better than we began. Do not worry if your child or student never wins a trophy; worry if they quit.

Laura Williamson is a born-and-raised Coloradoan. She is a rising senior finishing a degree in Business Administration with minors in Pre-Law and Accounting. Laura competed in Stoa for seven years and has continued to coach a variety of events since graduation. Throughout her time in college she has continued to pursue her passion for forensics by participating in collegiate debate and moot court.


An Alumni Response to NITOC Cancellation

Kate Creecy

As you are likely aware, the Stoa Board recently made the difficult decision to cancel NITOC 2020. I know that this decision required many hours of meeting, deliberation, and prayer. I’m grateful for the Board’s commitment to taking the best course of action, no matter how hard. I’m grateful to the members of Stoa, for their support of the Board and its decision.

I can tell you that tears were shed in my home after the announcement. My heart hurts for competitors, especially seniors. As C.S. Lewis would remind us, no one is ever told what might have been. As a coach and an alumna, I consider what my response should be to this situation.

This is a good time to pause and reflect on why I wanted my students to compete in the first place. Was it to get to NITOC? It’s fine to chase checkmarks. It’s fine to want to win. But if my heart sinks when I hear that NITOC is cancelled because I’ve made one tournament the end-all-be-all, then something isn’t fine.

My satisfaction cannot be based on my team’s ranking at one tournament. I cannot encourage my students to wrap up their hopes and dreams in one performance. If I teach my students that NITOC is the ultimate purpose of their competitive endeavors, I’m robbing them of a large part of their forensic education. I’m teaching them to store their treasure, and thus their hearts, in things that will pass away. Don’t get me wrong — I love NITOC! I remember the thrill of competing. I remember the friends and the special moments. But my point is this — There’s more to Stoa than NITOC.

Stoa equips students to speak boldly and change the world for Christ. Stoa develops and rewards excellence in speaking and debating. Stoa glorifies God. These are the purposes of our competition, of our tournaments. This is the point of NITOC.

This emphasis on excellence — that’s what I need to focus on at this time. I need to teach my students to develop their critical thinking skills, delivery skills, speaking skills, and research skills if for no other reason than that they need these skills for the real world. When I rank lifelong and life-changing skills lower on my list of priorities than one performance, I need a gut-check. I need to ask for a paradigm shift and a divine re-ordering of my priorities. I need to spend time on my knees in prayer.

My response to this situation needs to be refocusing my goals on excellence and glorifying God. In my coaching, in my academic studies, in my professional endeavors, why am I pursuing the things that I am pursuing? In this time of pause, let’s pray that we will pursue the right things for the right purposes.

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