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Mikayla Hirsch

This month’s spotlight features Mikayla Hirsch, who competed in LOGOS CO from 2011-2014. She currently lives in Westminster, CO. She holds a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction and currently serves as video production and English teacher.

Words have always enthralled Mikayla. But, as she explains, her love for deep conversations and her competitive spirit do not work well together in every situation. Debate, however, became a place for these two seemingly opposite tendencies to thrive: “My family visited a tournament, and I was instantly sold: Teenagers wearing suits? Devising plans, arguing them, and presenting their ideas with confidence? I knew two things: (1) I was completely out of my league, and (2) these were my people. After that, there was no going back: speech and debate was my ‘thing.’”

While Mikayla says that, without a doubt, Team Policy remained her favorite event (“I went to tournaments to debate,” she tells us), she also loved Duo Interpretation and Mars Hill, which helped her develop the skills she needed in film school. She explains, “I went to film school after graduation and both those speech events helped me be a better storyteller. Duo because I practiced connecting to an audience through a unique medium and Mars Hill because it helped me articulate the connection between art and worldview.”

For the past 3 years, she has been a video production and English teacher at a public high school, though she is transitioning to a position at a Christian school where she will be teaching English (among other subjects) for the 7th-10th grades. 

Teaching did not initially fit into Mikayla’s plans, but God opened doors for her, allowing her to eventually pursue this career. She recounts, “After graduation I attended Colorado Film School and was working on my degree in Communications with the intention of pursuing film/video production in some context. During my last semester of college, the Lord threw an opportunity in my lap to intern under a high school video production teacher, and I fell in love with teaching. I took over that position when my supervising teacher retired. I earned my English teaching qualification, finished my master’s degree, and gradually became more involved in organizing and developing curriculum. I was not planning on being a teacher and certainly not an English teacher, but I am having a lot of fun with it.”

As for Stoa’s involvement in her career choices, Mikayla says, “Few activities have impacted my life as practically and significantly as my time in speech and debate. Competing impressed upon me the importance of making your message relevant to your audience, the power of persuasion, and gave me the confidence and skills to make my message meaningful—a useful trick for teachers (and filmmakers too). When I was in film school, I won a couple of awards (including a regional Emmy) for a pro-life documentary I made, and I can’t imagine how I would have made it without the tools of persuasion that were instilled in me through my time in Stoa.” 

Mikayla offered a final word of encouragement for fellow alumni: “I think life post-graduation has held a great deal of disillusionment. There is a lot to be grateful for, but there are also many dreams, desires, expectations, and visions that constantly die before my eyes—and I don’t think I am the only one. Whatever dream you have to bury today, be it big or little, I pray you remember that God is faithful. I don’t know exactly what his faithfulness will look like in my life or your life moving forward, but in any level of grief we experience, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Our hope is in a faithful and good God. He has been good in the past, and it is in his proven character to continue to be good.”

Luke Litz

This month’s Alumni Spotlight features Luke Litz, who competed for Ambassadors for Christ from 2013-2019. He currently studies at Belmont University, where he is pursuing a Bachelors in Philosophy of Religion.

Luke started his Stoa journey at age 13, when his mom heard about a speech and debate camp in their area. Luke says, “She asked me if I wanted to go and try it out. I loved to argue as a kid, and so naturally I felt like this was an amazing idea. Learning how to win arguments? What could be cooler?” Luke thoroughly enjoyed the camp, and his family connected to the local club who had hosted it. The rest, he says, is history. (Luke wanted us to know that he did learn that debate was about much more than winning arguments.)

At his first tournament, Luke recalls feeling in over his head, overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the event. He explains, “My problem was not that I felt underprepared (even though I definitely was) or that I didn’t think I was capable of succeeding (I had an unfounded confidence). My problem was that the whole scene seemed massive to me. Kids from all over my region and other states were here, and we were all here to compete, almost like a sporting event. It seemed bigger than anything I had ever been a part of up to that point.”

Luke loved LD especially, but he also fondly recalls the many friends he made through Parli and how Extemp taught him about current events. Ultimately, though, the Stoa community impacted him deeply: “I have so many memories from NITOC. I could tell you about all of the people that I debated or the people that I met from other regions of the country… [F]or me, I think the most impactful memory is one that I share from all of my NITOC experiences. This is the ritual of meals in the cafeteria. … [T]he cafeteria was a place where we all came together and shared each other’s company. There, the focus was not on debate rounds as much as it was on fellowship and making connections. It represents the sense of community that I still feel with everyone who is involved with Stoa…”

Luke is currently a student at Belmont University, studying Philosophy of Religion. His goal is to attend graduate school, complete a Masters of Theological Studies and a PhD, and eventually become a professor.

He has always found theology particularly intriguing, even saying he thought in the past of becoming a pastor. But once he took a philosophy course, Luke realized his passion for philosophy. The final piece of the puzzle, he says, is that he uncovered a desire for teaching through an opportunity to coach at the Impact and Ambassador clubs in Tennessee: “Coaching debate has made me realize that I have a passion for teaching and helping others grow.”

Finally, Luke encourages and admonishes other alumni: “We have all been blessed with incredible opportunities through Stoa! We have learned how to Speak Boldly, now it is time for us to Change the World for Christ! The skills that we learned in Stoa are applicable to all aspects of our lives, and I would encourage all of us to hold onto those and continue to sharpen them. Continue to communicate well, because the world needs communication, the world needs love, and the world needs Christ. Let’s try to be the light of Christ in the world with the tools that we’ve been given.”

Patrick Ortiz

To round out the academic year, we’re excited to highlight Patrick Ortiz in this month’s spotlight. Patrick competed in Stoa and NCFCA from 2007-2011 under the club Touché. He then took his talents into science by studying biology at Concordia University Irvine (CUI) and is now pursuing his PhD in Molecular Biology at Baylor University.

His first exposure to competitive speech and debate came from an unusual source – chores! Patrick explains, “I got started in NCFCA because my mom used to give her old National Forensics League trophies to my siblings and me when we would do an extra big chore around the house. We asked what they were for and she told us about speech and debate.” After a few years of NCFCA competition, Patrick made the switch to Stoa when the league was started in 2009.

Patrick described his love for good debate rounds where both sides identified the crux of the debate and narrowed in on that clash. He notes, “I remember debating Chase Harrington that first NITOC in 2010 which was a big deal because he won everything, and I remember feeling a little nervous. Then in college, we debated on the same team and I learned he’s actually a dork (and a good friend) so I don’t know what I was nervous about.” Patrick also recalled his Open Interp, saying, “I got one of the judges to gasp at a big plot twist, which was fun!”

Putting successes into context was important, as Patrick mentioned, “It’s really hard to remember 10 years afterward how I ranked specifically but it’s much easier to remember the actual event competitions and friends made.”

In his current life, Patrick is pursuing his PhD in Molecular Biology at Baylor University, hoping to work in the biotech field afterward. He works on developing antimicrobial peptides – small protein-like molecules that kill bacteria – as a new alternative to traditional antibiotics that are becoming less effective against the rapid rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. He also works on the microbiome – a.k.a. all of the bacteria that reside in and on the body, especially in the gut. In the future, he hopes to work for a biotech company doing microbiome research.

Patrick always enjoyed science but didn’t realize biotech research was an option, saying, “In high school and college I thought studying biology meant going to become a doctor, but then the MCAT looked hard and I had a professor suggest that I might be more interested in research. I took a couple of gap years and worked before going to grad school. I wouldn’t have expected this turn, but now I can confirm research is very rewarding (and if you ask me, way more interesting than being a doctor).”

When asked how speech and debate influenced his education, he started by saying what many of us know: Stoa helped make public speaking an asset instead of a liability, which helped with class presentations and gave him leverage against some bad exam grades! But Stoa also had a much more unexpected impact on his education and future: “I applied to CUI because I thought ‘Oh what the heck, I’ll apply to that school we do debate tournaments at’ and then I ended up going there. Actually, I won the 2011 tournament at CUI, walked straight from the front of the room to Konrad Hack (CUI Director of Forensics), and let him know that I had applied. He gave one of his characteristic ‘interested’ looks and helped answer a bunch of questions about the university. So I went to college because of Stoa. Half of the debate team at CUI was made of Stoa alum, who all became even better friends through that experience. While hanging out with those people I got introduced to one of their friends in the history department and then I married her. So I guess you can say my education/career/overall life trajectory has been influenced a lot by speech and debate.”

Patrick and his wife, Sam, got married in 2019. In Patrick’s words, Sam “puts up with my stories about speech and debate from high school and college.” He continued “Fortunately, she was not a speech and debater, so she keeps me from getting too nerdy about all that stuff.”

Patrick finished with these words: “One of the biggest things I learned since leaving debate is that you don’t convince your opponents by debating them. You are trying to persuade an objective judge. So keep that in mind next time you want to get really mad at someone on the internet or you want to start an argument at thanksgiving. Debate is a really useful activity for honing critical thinking skills, but don’t think you’re going to get in a political argument with someone and change their mind. It’s just going to make people upset, most people aren’t actually persuadable.

“One of the hardest things to do after debate is to learn to stop being a debater. Incidentally, this tip is crucial if you ever want to get married! And I’m not just making a corny old marriage joke either, you can logic your way into being the rightest as much as you want but if you really love someone, that’s of secondary or tertiary importance. So all of that is to say speech and debate teach great skills, but my recommendation is to learn when not to be a debater. Also if you don’t learn that people in the real world will just think you’re a stubborn nerd. And who wants that?”

Audrie Ford

In honor of NITOC 2021 later this month, this spotlight features Audrie Ford, a former NITOC Tournament Champion who competed in Stoa from 2009 to 2014 splitting time with two clubs, Paradigm and Mars Hill. She is about to graduate with her Master’s in Literature from the University of Arizona and plans to pursue a PhD thereafter.

Audrie had an auspicious start to her homeschooling experience – she and her siblings were pulled out of public school when their reading skills outpaced the classroom’s pace. The move ended up being important for a sense of stability, since their family moved regularly for work.

During their stint in San Diego, Audrie and her family attended an open demo night held by their future club, Paradigm. She watched current students perform a Duo and a DI that made her, a self-described ‘baby theater lover’, want to participate.

Audrie wound up participating in every single event throughout her time in Stoa but was most enamoured with extemporaneous speaking and team policy. Her coaches for those two events, Sharon Nagatani and Van Schalin, were exemplary instructors who connected with their students in a way Audrie still tries to model to this day.

She fondly remembers many moments from her Stoa experience – particularly the ‘printing parties’ Paradigm would hold before Extemp rules were changed allowing competitors to use computers. Audrie described the scene: “We would cram into a tiny office and print off hundreds of articles and try to file them by topic as best we could. I got a lot of papercuts and a lot of laughs out of those nights!”

Audrie’s senior year saw her competing at the infamous 2014 NITOC, when the wildfires around San Diego forced the tournament to adapt quickly and rotate through several locations during the week. Her favorite memory was the chance to honor her former coach at the awards ceremony: “The memorable part was not hearing my name, but getting to take a trophy from a former coach…and getting to tell him, ‘This is because of you[r teaching].’”

After graduation, Audrie went on to get her BA in English and Communications from the University of Arizona and continued on to grad school for a Masters in Literature. She described discovering a spark to study literature in a high school English class that she says, “set me on fire for stories and the ways in which they (and the way they’re taught) can change students’ lives.”

Where the class sparked her passion, speech and debate had a huge role in inspiring her to dig deeper through study and communication. Audrie pointed out, “I’m convinced that storytelling is one of the most effective methods of ‘touching’ an audience, but I want to learn the hows and whys of that!”

Audrie also credits speech and debate with giving her the tools to speak and argue well which, as she said, “comes in handy in male dominated fields that have certain expectations of what ‘professionalism’ looks like.” She elaborated, “Since I’ve been speaking in front of people since I was in middle school, conferences in front of my colleagues don’t look as scary.”

Eventually, Audrie plans to be an instructor in either a community college or four year institution who shapes policy and conducts research that improves the classroom experience, particularly in English and writing courses, for students of all backgrounds.

She encouraged alumni of all ages to appreciate the progress they’ve made during this last difficult year. “If you’re reading this, you’ve made it through one year of a global pandemic, not to mention all the other turmoil happening in the world around us. That alone is something you should be proud of, even if you aren’t able to write down all of the accolades you want on your CV, resume, what-have-you. That piece of paper doesn’t define you, and ‘productivity’ shouldn’t burden you. There’s no appropriate timeline for life! Good things are still to come!”

Esther Wickham

This month we feature Esther Wickham, who competed with Dikaios in San Bernardino, CA, from 2013 to 2019. Esther is currently attending The King’s College in New York City, majoring in Journalism, Culture, and Society with a Pre-Law minor.

As the youngest of six kids, Esther was exposed to speech and debate from a young age through her older siblings. She quickly fell in love with speech and debate, and was excited, albeit nervous, when she finally had a chance to compete at her first tournament.

Her favorite events were Duo and Parliamentary debate. Both events challenged her and taught her valuable skills on patience and understanding while working with another person. She loved the creativity that Duo provided, and the quick-paced critical thinking skills Parli taught.

Esther cherished her experience in the Stoa community. One of her best memories was during her 8th grade year, when she advanced to outrounds in two events. She stood up from her chair only to realize the trees overhead had left sap all over the seats, and now, her pants. Her friends all came together to loan her fresh competition clothes, and she ended up competing in red shoes, a white shirt, and a navy blue suit. “So I was basically representing the colors of America,” she quipped.

She also cherished the more serious moments. After she had given a Persuasive speech on a personal topic, one of the moms who had judged her came up to her afterwards. That mom had been through a similar experience and proceeded to share truth and encouragement with her. “It was such a good conversation,” Esther said, “it showed me the beauty of being vulnerable in competition.”

Esther is now studying Journalism, Culture, Society, and Pre-law at The King’s College. She always wanted to pursue an education and live in New York, so attending King’s has been a great way to do both. After college, she hopes to either work as a political journalist or attend law school working in criminal justice.

She credited Stoa with fueling her love for community, politics and writing. “A lot of things from speech and debate have influenced my education and career goals. If I weren’t a part of Stoa, I probably would have never heard of The King’s College. But the biggest thing I have learned is loving God and others well while living your life for the kingdom and following God’s will, whatever that looks like.”

Ester also encouraged alumni to get involved with Stoa: “Though every institution is not perfect, there are many things that the Stoa community has given to us as alumni. What we learned competing in speech and debate has equipped us for the higher education and career world. Though we continue to grow and change our perceptions of the world around us, the least we can do is give back to the community that gave so much to us.”

Kasey Leander

Our March spotlight features Kasey Leander, who competed in NCFCA and Stoa with Resolve in Colorado from 2008 to 2012. He graduated from Taylor University in 2016 with a B.A. in Politics, Philosophy and Economics and is now applying his speech and debate skills as an apologist who speaks on intellectual barriers to Christian belief.

Kasey was first introduced to speech and debate through several church friends. As he explained, “My parents basically thought they were so awesome that we needed to give it a shot!” He called his first ever tournament “pure magic” – he rode up to Salt Lake City’s Speak on These Things tournament in a 16-passenger bus and even had some success in debate. But he said the best part was the electric air of the whole thing. “I made friends that I still can’t think about with smiling… We were all running around competing our faces off. In between were milkshake runs, mock debate rounds, waiting for breaks and a huge awesome award ceremony to finish it out. You’re with people who really care about the same stuff as you do. Everyone – not just Resolvers – cheered so loudly for each other at the award ceremony. I felt like I had found my people.”

Kasey described his experience with debate as a sport: pushing oneself to the limit of how much information can be recalled and how quickly, and how well one can entertain the audience. He said his favorite rounds were filled with tons of clash between arguments but ended with genuine respect and friendship. As for speech events, he proclaims, “If you like having fun, do a Duo. If you like telling stories, do a Duo. If you want to experience the crown jewel of STOA speech events, do a Duo. It’s a chance to unleash the creativity within and produce something really unique. It’s the event I had the most competitive success in, but I owe that to my string of truly exceptional Duo partners.“ He recalls his favorite NITOC memory in 2011 at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA, “It was unbelievable. In our semi-final round, Benjamin Griffith and I performed our duo in a chapel with a stunning 180 degree ocean view behind us. Not sure if it helped us to have such an incredible backdrop but it was awesome!”

Currently, Kasey is an apologist speaking on intellectual barriers to Christian belief. “Pre-COVID, I travelled a lot to churches, businesses, and universities to engage with people face to face!. During COVID, my job has meant producing a lot more digital media, and doing a lot less travel (which is not always a bad thing!)” When asked why he chose this path, Kasey explained, “The gospel is everything. It’s not just religion: it’s the very fabric of reality. The existence of God is the unifying factor behind why our world makes sense: reconciliation with him is the answer for our deepest longings. Whatever else I ended up doing in life, I knew an education in Christian apologetics would serve as a really good foundation for it.”

Stoa helped Kasey develop the mindset that led him to being an apologist. “Stoa was also one of the first ways I really learned the truth of this proverb: ‘The first to speak in court sounds right— until the cross-examination begins.’ (Prov. 18:17.) That’s literally true in debate and when we’re grappling with doubts about faith, it holds true as well. We need to pursue every perspective to better know the truth. No one should have an unexamined faith in Jesus: how else will we know we’ve counted the cost to be his disciple?”

Kasey made sure to end our interview on a humorous note. When asked for a word of encouragement to fellow alumni, he said this: “Whenever you think life is difficult, just remember the good old days when competitors had to print out thousands of literal, physical extemp articles and store them in massive crates that we dragged to every single tournament we went to. How crazy is that??? In the words of Ben Griffith, ‘We basically just tried to print the entire journalism internet every week and then carry it around with us at tournaments.’”

Denise Sprimont

Irvine, CA

Our February spotlight features Denise Sprimont, who competed with S.C.A.R.L.E.T. in Irvine, CA, from 2010-2016. She attended Concordia University Irvine after high school where she received her bachelor’s degree in History and Political Thought and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Modern Middle Eastern Studies in the Center for Middle Eastern History at the University of Chicago.

She got her start in Stoa because of its alumni. Graduates came to her homeschool co-op to speak about their experience with speech and debate and Denise’s family knew at that moment that Stoa would be a great fit for them. Denise went to a speech and debate camp that summer, and started competing in the Fall.

She now laughs at how nervous and terrified she was as a first year competitor, but as the years went by, Denise grew to love Stoa and its strong Christian core. That appreciation was evident when she discussed her favorite speech event – Original Oratory – saying, “[O.O.] was such a ministry – not only to the judges, but also to myself! It was a way to ingrain God’s word in my everyday life.”

For Denise, the idea of Stoa being a ministry to both judges and herself also showed up in her favorite NITOC memory:

“My senior year, I made it to finals in Apologetics. Instead of a tense atmosphere outside the competition room, there was a sense of joy and excitement. Every one of the eight competitors in finals was a personal friend of mine. We prayed together before the round. Instead of praying for success, we prayed that we would be a witness to someone in the room. When it was my turn to speak, I felt compelled to give a speech on Hinduism and sure enough, I drew a category 6 question on Hinduism. After I had given my speech, I didn’t think much about it. Later, a parent who had become a family friend stopped me to talk about my apologetics round. He explained to me that on the way to NITOC, he had met a Hindu man and woman on the plane and invited them to attend NITOC and watch speeches. They had been in the Apologetics round and had heard my speech! They found him and told him that a speech on Hinduism challenged their beliefs and impacted them. To date, that remains the most important speech I gave– not because of a cool award or title, but because I saw the fruit of the event come to fruition inside the competition room!”

Going beyond the life-giving nature of Apologetics, Denise also pointed out how speech and debate gave her the critical thinking skills necessary to analyze and interact with the national security environment. These skills have become integral to her pursuit of a master’s degree in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago. Her aim after graduation is to work in the national security sector in a think tank. “Like many others,” she said, “I want to make an impact on US policy. My graduate degree will further prepare me to do just that.”

Denise received one more treasure out of Stoa: her fiancé! She explained: “Konrad Hack introduced me to David Vasquez my senior year and explained that we were the two most sarcastic Stoa competitors (in retrospect, I’m sure Konrad had grander plans…which of course came true five years later). We both went to Concordia University Irvine, and were debate partners for all four years of our collegiate debate career (we finished first overall in the nation our senior year!). We became engaged in the summer of 2020. In addition, our two closest friends are also Stoa competitors. Although we did not know each other in Stoa, our likemindedness and shared love of debate and Christ made us fast friends in college.”

Finally, she also urges alumni to make the most out of the connections they have from Stoa. “Your experience as an alumni is what you make it – be intentional. I have been incredibly influenced by a mentor of mine who, despite living states away and being in a totally different stage of life, made time for me. Whether it was questions about graduate school, debate theory, undergraduate, or even career advice, he has always answered when I call. You never know what that intentionality will do in the life of another. For me, it encouraged me to stay involved in Stoa, push myself, and apply to grad school.”

John David Logan

Washington, D.C.

Our first Alumni Spotlight of 2021 highlights John David Logan, who competed with Invictus Fides in Texas from 2012-2016. He graduated from Union University in 2020 with a B.S. in Political Science, focusing on International Relations. He now works in Washington, D.C., as a Legislative Correspondent for a Tennessee Congressman.

John David points out Stoa’s impact on him by highlighting the importance of its competitive nature in spurring him on to improve, both in speech and in life. It started from his very first tournament, where he distinctly remembers his disappointment at not competing as well as he wanted. That lit a fire in him and drove him to compete better at later tournaments.

Two of John David’s favorite events were Team Policy in debate and Apologetics in speech. Team Policy, in his words, “taught me how to be an expert in my own case while being creative against my opponents’ cases.” He noted that Apologetics was his favorite speech event “because it used my competitive drive to fuel a deeper understanding of my faith and sharpened my ability to communicate it with winsomeness.”

Like many competitors, John David continued debating when he graduated from Stoa and attended Union University. He competed for Union University’s highly decorated debate team in the International Public Debate Association, serving as Captain his senior year.

Combining his deep love for Apologetics and Policy Debate, he now works for a Congressman as a Legislative Correspondent. He notes that he chose a career in policy because he believes it is important for Christians to be active in the political arena.

John David highlights the importance of both Apologetics and Team Policy in his career and life. Particularly, he credits Team Policy with teaching him the important role that policymakers have in responding to the unique challenges we face. He is excited to continue his career in policy and study the confluence of policy and faith.

The Stoa community still holds a place in John David’s heart, and he has been encouraged as he meets alumni across the country. He notes, “Stoa alumni are everywhere throughout the US. I am continually astonished by how often I see and meet people from Stoa, so it is encouraging to know that you always have that instant community no matter where you are.”

Sam Youmans

Siloam Springs, AR

This month’s Alumni Post features Sam Youmans from Siloam Springs, AR. Sam competed with Rising Eagles from 2014-2018 before attending Ouachita Baptist University where he is currently pursuing his B.A. in Music Industry with a Business Administration Minor.

Sam was introduced to Stoa when NITOC came to John Brown University in Siloam Springs in 2013. His mother volunteered to judge and brought two very disinterested children with her (Sam and his sister). Sam’s initial expectations were low until he reluctantly timed impromptu. Much to his surprise, the impromptu speeches blew him away with their delivery. The fact that the competitors could speak for five minutes with no preparation astonished him! Sam’s family joined Stoa the subsequent year.

The first tournament had surprises waiting at every corner. Sam recalls, “My first tournament was in Irving, Texas. I remember getting desperately nervous waiting for the first debate round postings to go up, and then getting desperately lost trying to find my room. Fortunately, my first debate was with another novice. I actually won my first two rounds. But little 15-year-old Sam didn’t realize that winners debate other winners. The rest of the tournament was not so successful.”

Sam’s favorite event was Mars Hill Impromptu. As he explains, “It highlights what we should always be doing: analyzing our world through God’s eyes and using our world to show others Biblical truth.”

On top of speech and debate, Sam also studied piano from middle school through high school. He loved music and band, and, though he loved many subjects he studied, he was ultimately drawn to music. Currently, Sam is in an undergraduate program at Ouachita Baptist University majoring in Music Industry.

Sam could sense that speech and debate would play second fiddle to his love of music. Yet he was deeply affected by his time in Stoa. “Looking back, I’d say that thriving in speech and debate indirectly gave me the personal confidence, self-respect, and motivation that I needed to really take ownership of my faith, beliefs, and educational future.” Though the path from speech and debate to the music profession is not well-trodden, Stoa was no less important in giving him the skill that he uses today through his studies.

Branden Yeates

Lakewood, CO

This month’s profile features Branden Yeates, from Lakewood, CO. Branden graduated high school in 2014 and currently works in public accounting. He competed in Stoa from 2010 to2014 with the club SALT, attending NITOC each year and participating in a total of nine different events.

Before participating in Stoa’s inaugural competition season in 2010, Branden was already in love with speech and debate. His older brother, Callan, started competing when Branden was old enough to volunteer as a timer (and as a sidekick, he pointed out) at tournaments. Branden grew to love competitive forensics through those experiences and started competing in Duo and Team Policy with Callan in 2008.

Branden fondly recalls the warm welcome he received from Stoa the first year, saying “My memories are of a fourteen-year-old debater from a different state and league being welcomed in like a favored guest. My dad and I had a wonderful time: I had my cases eaten for lunch by the Californian talent, and I met several debaters there that are still my friends today.”

His favorite moment was a memorable awards ceremony with a teammate living (and competing) in a wheelchair: “One of my teammates, Josiah, had broken to finals in several of his events. At the awards ceremony, four of the SALT guys put on sunglasses, acted like his security detail, and lifted him in his wheelchair on and off the stage each time he crossed it. The audience shook the auditorium with their cheers for Josiah – it was simply incredible.” Branden still serves the Stoa community in various ways, having been involved for over a decade now. He does freelance speech and debate coaching and is a member of Stoa’s Debate Committee, focusing on Lincoln Douglas debate.

Branden now works in public accounting as an auditor. He has a heart for public policy, and, after several years of exploring potential options, landed on accounting, appreciating its foundational appeal when pursuing public policy. He currently focuses on opportunities in business and education.

Speech and debate had a huge impact on his career and education. First, it gave him an urgent sense of mission: “I can still hear Scott York’s ringing senior charge that we’re on a God-given mission to be Kingdom communicators, and I try to orient my life towards that Kingdom mission every day.” Second, he points out that speech and debate gave him a toolbox of career skills like public speaking, professional dress, analysis and critical thinking, case writing, and strong listening skills, saying, “Of all the activities I could have done during my middle and high school years I cannot think of any activity that would have prepared me for my career better than speech and debate in general and Stoa in particular.”

Branden is currently pursuing his license as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and is hoping to gain more experience as an auditor. As for the long term, he is looking into several options, including law school or graduate school. But for now, his mind is on the present. As he said: “I’m looking forward to finishing the CPA exam this year, and then never thinking about the CPA exam ever again.”

Appreciation for Stoa and the Stoa community is evident in Branden’s story. He sees Stoa as a solution to one of the most pressing educational challenges today, saying, “I would love to see Stoa step into the educational gap that is being created by coronavirus: the statistics I’ve been reading indicate that the homeschooling population in America (and the world) will jump by several orders of magnitude in the coming years, and these new homeschooling families need the help of the existing homeschooling community in this time of global crisis. If we can seize this moment to serve these new families and train new students, Stoa’s Kingdom impact could be multiplied exponentially for many years to come. Carpe diem, right?”

Branden urges alumni to live in light of Stoa’s mission to speak boldly and change the world for Christ and notes, “Stoa has a critical role to play in the lives of Christian homeschooling students, and we can help ensure that role is carried out by investing in the next generation of Stoa competitors.”

Isabelle Clausen

Fountain Springs, AZ

This month’s alumni profile features Isabelle Clausen, who grew up in Fountain Hills, Arizona, and competed with Mars Hill from 2014 to 2017. She graduated from Grand Canyon University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in Finance and Economics with a minor in Entrepreneurial Studies.

Isabelle was “accidentally homeschooled.” She explained, “When I was four years old, my family and I lived in Idaho, and we lived out in the country, about thirty minutes from school. Instead of traveling far to go to school each day, my mom and dad thought they could teach my brother and I shapes, colors, etc. The next year, when it came to reading and math, my dad asked my mom, ‘Well, we can probably teach them letters and numbers too, right?’ After that, the rest was history. I was homeschooled from preschool through 12th grade!”

Her introduction to Stoa was through a speech and debate class taught at her co-op. She loved it and joined Mars Hill in her sophomore year. Isabelle says she was nervous to step out of her comfort zone but the experience taught her that God is looking out for her and will give her courage and strength when she starts new experiences. Furthermore, because she was able to step out of her comfort zone in high school, she now has more courage in other parts of her life, such as starting her career and living on her own.

As Isabelle gained more Stoa experience, the surrounding sense of community profoundly impacted her. She remembers making speech and debate jokes around a table, winning her first checkmark at the same time as a friend, and practicing swing dancing on the grass while discussing debate applications at NITOC. The community that Isabelle found in Stoa was exactly what she needed to build her confidence and create lifelong friendships. Because of this experience, she reminds herself often that in the new chapters of life, God will bless us more than we can fathom if we trust Him and ask for His help.

Isabelle is currently studying to become a financial advisor and eventually a Certified Financial Planner. She is partnering with her dad in the family investment business and hoping to take over the business in the next 10 years when her dad retires. The business has an office in Idaho and opened a second office in Arizona this October.

Stoa profoundly blessed her in her career endeavors. As she explained: “In speech and debate, you learn how to explain complex topics to people in a way that makes sense and is simple to understand. Finance is very complex and can be intimidating to most people. Speech and debate taught me skills on how I can articulate facts and statistics in a compelling and simplified way.” Isabelle also pointed out that speech and debate teaches you how to empathize with your audience and build a personal connection. She has carried this forward in her finance career, finding common ground with her clients by sharing personal stories and life lessons.

Finally, she encouraged Stoa alumni to find the balance between spending time with Christian friends and branching out to engage others. “Young adults need the love of Jesus. As young Christians, it’s our job to help other young adults find the love of Jesus. As we step out into the world and meet new people, one of the best ways to evangelize is by sharing kindness and love with others. This can be as simple as listening to someone’s struggles, inviting someone over to dinner, or inviting someone to church. As John 13:34-35 states, ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’.”

Taryn Enos

Colorado Springs, CO

This month’s Alumni Spotlight features Taryn Enos, who competed out of Colorado with Resolve from 2010 to 2016. She competed at NITOC in eleven different events during her competition years, including all three styles of debate. She now works full-time as a Relations Specialist with Compassion International, a child sponsorship and Christian humanitarian aid organization headquartered in Colorado Springs.

Taryn expressed deep gratitude to her parents for homeschooling all eight of their children, saying, “I personally believe I never would have finished high school if they did not homeschool us.” She described how it was because of her siblings that she got involved in Stoa. By the time her eldest brother was 14, her parents knew he was a debater and the family joined their local club.

Taryn saw speech and debate as a huge part of her life and had stories from throughout her six years of competition. Her misadventures included cleaning up broken glass from an ill-fated expository prop to uncontrollable laughing outside of a competition room for ten minutes straight.

It was her interps, namely Dramatic and Humorous, that she remembers most fondly. She did a DI every year she competed, and the one year she also did HI she made it to finals. Both events made a huge impact on her ability to express herself. “Growing up, I had a hard time learning to express emotion in front of people or on my own. I remember that Humorous and Dramatic Interps were the first time that me expressing emotion was accepted by my peers. In a way, those events helped me learn how to express emotion in a safe way through a creative hobby.”

Passing down her knowledge to others has remained dear to her. On top of being a full-time Relations Specialist with Compassion International, Taryn also runs her own teaching platform through where she teaches speaking and social skills to young children.

She was drawn to Compassion International because of the impact it has: “I believe in doing what works. The reason I chose to work with Compassion was because they impact children all over the world in an ethical and tangible way. Personally, I do not care what I do for work as long as I can reach the type of impact and life that I am looking for.”

Taryn credits Stoa with many of the skills that brought her to where she is today. “The reason every person in my department was hired is for our skills with people. Our ability to speak and relate gives Compassion the ability to have a totally unscripted format for every medium they communicate through. My speech experience was actually something that I have been asked about in every interview and that speaks volumes.”

Her love for passing on the gifts we have been given penetrated Taryn’s outlook. She wants to see alumni step up to mentor and teach the next generation. “If you have never experienced beginning the year with a student and watching them grow and gain confidence, then you are missing out”, she explained. “People grow and change exponentially over a year. There is nothing better than watching the process of learning that accompanies any student learning something new. You have value to add to this amazing community!”

Mitch Mason

Grapevine, TX

Mitch competed with Invictus Fides from 2011 to 2015 in Team Policy, Parli, Extemp, and Impromptu. Mitch’s family chose homeschooling after he briefly attended a private school and discovered that it did not meet all of his needs – he needed the flexibility that homeschooling provided to play baseball at a high level. Friends from a local homeschool co-op encouraged the Mason family to try Stoa speech and debate and the Masons visited a local tournament to watch and time rounds. Mitch was instantly hooked. Speech and debate seemed like the ideal extracurricular activity because it would develop the skills that Mitch would need to pursue his true passions.

Dreams of future career plans pre-dated Mitch’s years in Stoa. Mitch knew he wanted to work in sports broadcasting from the time he was little. He says that he started his broadcasting journey at a young age, “I would fall asleep listening to Texas Rangers games on the radio and knew that I wanted to be like Eric Nadel (the Baseball Hall of Fame radio broadcaster) one day.”

But it is speech and debate that Mitch credits for giving him the communications skills necessary for the job. As he explains, “Before speech and debate, I was just another kid grinding away at my game. I was playing baseball every day and trying to get good enough to play in college. I couldn’t hold a conversation with anyone I did not know and certainly did not have much knowledge on any topic outside of sports. Speech and debate taught me how to think and gave me a verbal eloquence that my career is based on today. I truly would not be in the position that I am without my time in Stoa.”

After competing in Stoa, Mitch attended Texas A&M University, where he received his B.A. in Communications with a minor in Business in 2019. At A&M, Mitch gained experience in sports broadcasting. He is now pursuing an M.S. in Sports Management at Dallas Baptist University and expects to graduate in 2021.

Currently, Mitch works as the Head Graduate Assistant at Dallas Baptist University in the Athletics Department. Specifically, he works in Media Relations as an author and a play-by-play broadcaster for soccer, basketball, and baseball. He also serves as the head writer for Golf and Tennis. Mitch comments, “Working in NCAA athletics is a dream come true.” He hopes to get his start at a major D1 university when his contract with Dallas Baptist University expires and dreams of being a head play by-play broadcaster in the future.

Mitch urges the Stoa community to continue to engage those students who, like him, might pursue speech and debate less strongly than other activities like athletics: “It changed my life, and I know there are and will be more with stories like mine.”

Josiah McGee

Dallas, TX

Some debaters instinctively know they want to compete. Others remain oblivious until their parents provide hints by signing them up. Josiah McGee fell into the latter category. Once Josiah experienced tournament competition, however, he immediately loved debating. He found camaraderie amongst his Stoa peers and connected with them on matters both serious and hilarious. He remembers, “I was shocked when my little brother and I won a duo impromptu tournament. I’m absolutely terrible at it, but, in finals, he pretended to be an alien and carried us to victory.” His Stoa experience provided much more than just a good time though. Debate not only became a passion that continued through college, but it also initiated friendships that last to this day and opened his ears to hear the Lord’s calling.

Josiah grew up in Kansas City, MO, and competed for KC Animi primarily in Extemporaneous Speaking, Apologetics, Lincoln-Douglas Debate, and Parliamentary Debate from 2011 to 2015. In the Lord’s timing, the Arab Spring started only a year before Josiah joined Stoa. More than a coincidence, this event served as a divine catalyst. Studying political topics, including the Middle East and conflict resolution, softened his heart to a God-given passion for the region. In 2019, he graduated from Union University with a B.S. in International Relations and a minor in Economics.

In college, Josiah traveled to Israel with Passages, a non-profit that takes Christian college students to Israel to explore the roots of their faith and the modern dynamics of the region. This experience left a deep impression and Josiah felt drawn toward the diverse people, history, and landscapes of Israel. In a strange way, returning to the U.S. made him homesick, so he keeps visiting the Middle East. Since 2016, Josiah has returned to Israel eight times and made additional trips to Jordan and Poland.

Initially, Josiah believed he would work for the foreign service. God must have a sense of humor because Josiah felt led to the nonprofit sector instead and now serves as the Associate Director of Alumni Education for Passages. He leads the development of content for more than 7,000 alumni on topics including faith, Jewish-Christian relations, leadership, Middle Eastern politics, and more. Josiah says, “The best part of my job is talking with students who are truly discovering their faith for the first time. It makes my job more than a job, knowing that I help equip students to make a difference for the Kingdom of God wherever they go.”

Josiah credits Stoa with introducing to him many skills necessary to thrive in this role. He has a wide range of responsibilities—from project management and partner relations to customer service—which require excellent organizational, communication, and coalition-building skills. He especially enjoys working on two video projects—a leadership devotional collection and a biblical site series. Thankfully, in Apologetics, Josiah learned to study Scripture both on a thematic and a detailed level. Stoa equipped him to develop theological applications intended for a broad audience. Additionally, his passion for making the issues of the Middle East accessible to young Christians is rooted in the Extemporaneous speeches he gave in high school.

Recently, Josiah’s most important project has been a Digital Speaker Series. He coordinates live, public webinars with high profile individuals and executives, including author Yossi Halevi, Senator Marco Rubio, and former Ambassador Nikki Haley. This opportunity challenges Josiah professionally and provides space for new growth.

Looking forward, Josiah trusts the Lord to continue working through the Stoa community in these uncertain times. He mentions, “The Lord continues to use Stoa friendships around the country to broaden my horizons and encourage empathy. These are challenging times, and we need both critical thinking and compassion to represent Christ well in polarized, suffering communities.” In the short term, Josiah is thrilled to marry his best friend, Rebecah, in July 2020. In the long term, God’s plans will continue to reveal themselves. No matter what Josiah’s future holds, it will likely involve the Middle East as he continues to follow the path that the Lord sets before him.

*Thanks to Laura Williamson (CO) for serving as a contributing editor for this Spotlight.*

Ryan Woolsey

Tyler TX

This month, we are featuring Ryan Woolsey! Ryan grew up in Tyler, TX, and competed with Venture and Invictus Fides for four years, from 2011 to 2016, and competed at NITOC in each of his competition years. Immediately after Stoa, he attended Texas A&M where he completed a BS in Finance in 2019. He currently works in the US Treasury Department as an Associate National Bank Examiner of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) where he helps regulate national banks for the federal government.

Ryan’s first exposure to the world of speech and debate was through a debate camp run by Suzanne Nasser. He attended, despite the fact he didn’t know anyone involved, and got completely hooked. Afterward, Ryan and his friend Philip Baker, with the help and guidance of Jennifer Woolsey, Wendy Baker, and Dawn Sarna, created a 2-person club named Venture. That same year they started competing in Lincoln-Douglas debate at tournaments.

He admits that the whole thing was pretty overwhelming at first. “I was super deer-in-the-headlights,” he says, “I knew my room number and case I had learned at camp, and that was it. It was a humbling experience.” But, he continues, “I had a lot of fun, seeing people who I saw as peers and hung out with, winning trophies. I felt like I could do this.”

The next year, they had 16 total competitors in Venture and Ryan took on a coaching role. Ryan loves LD, saying: “I am a debate guy through and through. I loved LD, it was my competition, and the one I put a lot of time in…I learned values are everywhere. It even helped with conflict resolution. When coworkers did things in ways I disagreed with, I asked myself “what are their values?” It helped me to empathize with others by recognizing someone else’s value, but still being able to argue for your own values while acknowledging and respecting their values.”

He recalls the most meaningful thing he did during his debate career was when his club started the Go Light Your World speech and debate tournament. They used it as a way to share the story of Jimmy Brazell, a Godly young man who died young but left a huge imprint of the lives of everyone he met as he showed the love of Christ from home to his mission work in China. Jimmy Brazell was a friend of Ryan’s, and seeing his legacy encouraging hundreds of kids through the tournament stuck with him.

Ryan decided to pursue banking as a career because it brought together the passions he had fostered through debate with purpose. He says, “With debate we are big-picture, and I really like that. Then I fell in love with banking and seeing how it equips communities, works with charities, and gives my work meaning. With OCC, I’m looking from a bank management angle but seeing everyone’s different values and how they overlap. I value safety and soundness. I basically get to run the bank for a couple of weeks to make sure everything is run smoothly.”

That is not to say this job has been easy for Ryan. At 22, he is the youngest employee in his office. And because his job involves finding ways for banks to better manage themselves and then presenting his conclusions, he says it requires a lot of confidence to speak as an expert to such intelligent groups. Ryan notes that “speaking effectively sets you apart from others.” The skills he honed in speech and debate did wonders for his ability to speak boldly.

Ryan encourages fellow alumni to share what they’ve learned with others. “As alumni, we’ve been through a lot. There are a lot of unknowns as homeschoolers and we are now on the other end. We have gone through all those questions and are able to see how our lives have been changed. I think it is important to be there as a resource, source of encouragement, and a contact.”

Isabella Chow

San Francisco, CA

April brings a new alumna to the spotlight! This month we are featuring Isabella Chow, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and competed with Legacy speech club and Clash debate club from 2012 to 2016.While in middle school, Isabella attended her first speech and debate camp and decided to try forensics in ninth grade. She was nervous initially, but ended up falling in love with speech and debate and competed at NITOC in four out of her five years in Stoa. She even showed up ready for her first NITOC debate round after fighting off the stomach flu just the day before! Isabella remembers the priceless look of relief on her debate partner’s face and reminds us, “Ain’t nothing gonna stop a pumped debater!”After graduating high school, Isabella attended UC Berkeley, where she graduated with her B.A. in Music and B.S. in Business Administration in 2019. She now works in management consulting in San Francisco. “Management consulting is a popular first job for business students,” she says. “Personally, I really enjoy the fast-paced nature of work as well as the broad exposure to different clients and types of projects.” Her experience in speech and debate has been a tremendous asset in her academic and professional endeavors. Both her school and her work frequently require public communication and spontaneous thinking, from presenting slides to brainstorming ideas with project partners.As for where her job might take her? “Not sure, to be honest,” she answers. “Maybe I’ll be a tech CEO, elected official, partner at a consulting firm, homeschool mom…” — depending on how well-behaved her kids are, she jokingly clarifies — “…or all of the above!”Isabella says she’s looking forward to living in the Bay Area for the next couple of years. She loves the celebration of Asian culture, the endless sunny days, and, most of all, the prospect of more time spent with her family.

Isabella stays involved with Stoa by driving her younger sister to tournaments and judging when she’s able to. She’s grateful for Stoa’s influence, training that taught her about influencing society for Christ. Now in her post-college career, she carries lessons from competition with her. “As we move away from the shelter of homeschooling to the real world, it’s pretty safe to expect seasons where life is difficult and where questions of faith seem unanswered. Remember that God is big enough to handle your doubts and strong enough to calm your fears. Run to Him with your questions, not away from Him. He’ll always be there.”

Matthew Mittelberg

Atlanta, GA

Our alumni profile this month features Matthew Mittelberg, who grew up in Southern California and competed with Apollos and Resolve from 2007 to 2011 before competing at NITOC 2011.Matthew was first exposed to speech and debate through a debate camp in summer 2007 and remembers being paired with a partner and having no idea what to do. But they got hooked after their first round and started running practice rounds in the stairwell! The road to success was long and difficult though—Matthew says he always wanted to go to nationals but was never successful in any events until his senior year. That year, he switched from Team Policy to Lincoln Douglas and entered the previously unfamiliar events of Persuasive and Extemp. He went from never breaking in 2010 to being ranked #1 in both LD and Persuasive on Speechranks in 2011. Matthew took home a NITOC championship with his Persuasive speech on the impact of propaganda messaging in the abortion debate. He saw his hard work in previous years pay off as he found himself prepared to speak to a divisive issue with clear reasoning and a level-headed attitude and says that experience “lit a fire in me for speaking to people about the issues that really matter in life.”After competing in Stoa, Matthew enrolled at Grand Canyon University (GCU) where he graduated with a BS in Entrepreneurial Studies in 2016. He then took his talents abroad by completing a Certificate of Theology at Oxford University in England. Through his involvement in Stoa and subsequent studies, he found a calling as an apologist. Matthew explains, “I saw the need—people have real questions that require thoughtful answers. Christians doubt their faith because they’re often not given the answers they need to resolve their questions. And non-Christians are sometimes told to ‘just have more faith,’ instead of helping them to understand that both reason and evidence powerfully support belief in Jesus.”

Through his focus in apologetics, Matthew began working with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries where he is now a speaking Fellow. He speaks on apologetics topics at universities, schools, churches, and organizations around the world where he faces questions about faith that echo his old apologetics competition prompts such as, “Why would God allow evil and suffering?”, “Can faith and science coexist?”, and “Is faith irrational?” He enjoys opportunities to show evidence that supports faith in God such as the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, the reasons we can be confident in the Bible, and the philosophical and scientific support for God’s existence. His recent speaking engagements include the Reboot Tampa youth conference in January of this year where he addressed several hundred students ages 12-18. He was also involved with a week-long series of events at the University of Florida in February.

Such engagement was incubated in the environment provided by Stoa’s presence as a ministry to students and families. Matthew encourages fellow Stoa alumni to continue honing their skills to engage the world around them. He points out, “The skills gained in Stoa are broadly applicable to many fields of life, but students are trained to use them in a highly artificial environment with very specific rulesets. How do you persuade someone in the real world when it’s not an academic setting and people are easily offended? How do you respect someone’s opinion and be open-minded to new information while still holding on to your convictions and the things you know to be true? We can trust in Jesus and in his words, not based on blind faith, but because of the evidence. But until you decide to engage with this information yourself, you’re on the shaky ground of inherited faith. My advice: seek, and you will find.”

Chase Harrington

Washington, DC

Our first alumni profile features Chase Harrington, who grew up in Laguna Hills, CA, and competed with SCARLET from 2006 to 2010. Before Stoa was founded in his senior year, Chase competed in tournaments organized under NCFCA dating back to his first tournament at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA, in January 2007. Chase was a competitor at the first-ever Stoa tournament in January 2010, the Concordia Challenge, where he remembers preparing novices for their first debates in the new world of Stoa.

Chase primarily competed in Lincoln Douglas and Extemporaneous speaking and qualified for both events for Stoa’s first NITOC in 2010. He describes his love for Lincoln Douglas Debate, “A one-on-one discussion of competing values is a uniquely American form of debate — one that is lamentably gone from our political scene. Debates illuminate both sides of a complex issue. That alone would do immense good to unwind tribal attitudes and bruising campaign seasons.”

Once his Stoa competition career wrapped up with a 2010 NITOC Championship in Lincoln Douglas, Chase enrolled at Concordia University Irvine where he graduated in 2014 with a BA in International Studies. He then decided to pursue a career in law and completed his JD at Duke University’s School of Law in 2017. After passing the bar, he became an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — a firm dedicated to protecting religious liberty for people of all faiths. In his role, he helped defend the rights of an order of nuns called the Little Sisters of the Poor as well as representing the Klickitat and Cascade Tribes of Yakama Nation in Washington state and Buddhist capital defendant, Patrick Murphy, in Texas. Chase describes the impact of religious liberty, “Religious liberty matters to me because it is a tangible way I can treat others — even those with whom I have sincere and passionate disagreements — as people made in God’s image.” Currently, Chase practices law in the executive branch of the United States federal government in Washington, DC.

Over the years, Chase has been involved with Stoa in various ways, first as a Coach for VALOR throughout his time in Southern California for college and then later serving on the Stoa Lincoln Douglas committee for four years. One of his favorite Stoa memories was when Chase was coaching VALOR students at a NITOC. On the final morning, two of his students were in the final round of Parliamentary Debate, but his morning alarm didn’t go off. Chase was abruptly awakened by a phone call and an anxious debater shouting at him to get to the prep room because topics were being announced in minutes. He leaped from his bed, dressed in the elevator, brushed his teeth in the car, sprinted to the prep room — and made it! He says, “Everyone had a good laugh at my bedhead and half-tucked shirt, but I think it quieted nerves in the few moments we had before the topic was announced.”

For his fellow alumni, Chase has these words to say: “Alumni should appreciate the enormous privilege it was to compete in Stoa and give back. Hundreds of adults sacrificed their hobbies and free time to do menial tasks like check timer batteries, print schedules, make nametags, or tabulate a 300-competitor tournament so you would learn to think clearly and speak confidently. That is an immense gift. The best thank you alumni can give is come back — not to relive your glory days — but to judge graciously and serve.”

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