Student speakers take the challenge

The discourse was lively, the questions pointed and the answers unscripted – just what you'd want out of a public debate.

The second incarnation of the now annual Student Speaker Challenge kicked off in early January as a field of eight students began quarter-final rounds en route to determining a champion in March. For participants James Falconer and Selin Bilgin, the challenge serves as an opportunity to engage in a timeless and pure form of education.

"It's the old style, classic Greek conception of the university," says Falconer, a fourth-year sociology major. "The stadium, the discourse, the back-and-forth dialectic, that's what I thrive on and this is a wonderful example."

This year's question, "What is the value of post-secondary education to the world?" is especially relevant to students and attracted Bilgin, a first-year education student, to the competition.

"I know that there is a prize for the winner but more than anything, I wanted to do it for my personal experience," says Bilgin. "I do want to be a teacher so I have to get used to talking in front of a bunch of people, and it's a topic I care about and something I knew I could talk about."

The Student Speaker Challenge is a collaboration of the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs (SACPA), the Lethbridge Public Interest Research Group (LPIRG), and the University of Lethbridge Students' Union (ULSU), with support from the University of Lethbridge.

"We've been trying to make inroads on campus for a few years now and this idea, having a speaker challenge, works for us because it involves students and will hopefully attract some attention to what SACPA does in the city," says spokesperson Knud Petersen.

The format is simple, pitting two speakers against one another as they present their views on a predetermined topic. Each participant is given 15 minutes to speak, after which they answer questions from both the audience and the three-person judging panel. Following both presentations, the judges vote on who prevails and advances to the next round. A $500 award goes to the eventual champion, with $300 and $100 awards handed out to the second and third place finishers respectively.

"It's great to see off campus groups like SACPA join on campus organizations like LPIRG and the ULSU in presenting this because we all are interested in educating the public on important policy issues," says ULSU Vice-President Academic Alex Masse. "We do it much better collaboratively than we would be able to alone."

Falconer defeated Bilgin in their quarter-final matchup but she was roundly praised for taking on such a daunting task in just her second semester of post-secondary study.

"It was definitely tough and a little scary, especially when you make a mistake," says Bilgin. "I learned that the people here are very supportive. When I looked out I could see smiling faces, and they were paying attention to me, so that made me a lot more comfortable. It was definitely a great experience."

Masse says the challenge benefits everyone who takes part, including the audience.

"It's a great learning experience. I know I learn a few things from every speaker I hear because they present arguments I hadn't thought of before."

The challenge continues through to the Mar. 9 final at Andy's Place. Check the Notice Board for session dates and times.