Centralia College held its inaugural public speaking competition — the Statewide Inspirational Speech Championship — this past Saturday, which was modified to meet state social distancing requirements. Centralia College student, Haylee Ward, took home the gold.

In February, students from 20 out of the 35 community colleges in the state were planning to audition for a chance to compete in Centralia College’s Inspirational Speech Championship but the COVID-19 outbreak caused plans to change. One-by-one colleges started dropping out of the competition.

Centralia College decided to hold the competition despite the lack of participation from other schools. This year, all five of the speakers were Centralia College students — each delivering a 10- to 15-minute inspirational speech in the TransAlta Commons building on the college’s campus.

“It went really, really well. One of the reasons we teach is to watch students grow and sometimes with things like this you’re seeing them grow right in front of your eyes,” said Jeff McQuarrie, the program lead for communication studies at Centralia College and organizer of the Inspirational Speech Championship.

The winner of the Inspirational Speech Championship, Haylee Ward, 19, of Olympia, is the captain of the Centralia College Soccer team and president of the Student Advocacy & Activities Leadership Team (SAALT). Ward is going into her sophomore year at Centralia College.

Ward’s speech recounted the story of a fellow track and field runner, Emmet Douglas, who is completely blind but does not let that hinder him from running the race.

When deciding the winner, the judges of the competition looked for strong emotional appeal, charisma, voice inflection, body language, ability to inspire and a strong call to action.

The three judges of the competition were Central Washington University professor Lake Williams, Secretary of State Kim Wyman and Communication Director for the State Board of Community & Technical Colleges Laura McDowell.

McQuarrie said in order to meet the state’s guidelines for gatherings of 10 people or less, the event was live-streamed for family and friends to watch. The three judges, five contestants, camera operator and McQuarrie all wore masks during the event, except when they were speaking.

McQuarrie said that the lack of an audience, including the speaker’s family and friends, may have made the event more difficult because not focusing on the judges would be impossible in the nearly empty auditorium.

“Eight days before the competition, the governor said that there couldn’t be more than 10 people in a room,” said McQuarrie. “It was pretty bare-bones but I think it made it harder because there wasn’t anyone there to give the speakers those smiles.”

The runner-up of the competition was Matthew Critcher of Cheahlis who recently turned 16. He is involved in the running start program and began taking college classes at age 15 while still in high school.

The other contestants included Lisa Champman, 18, from Tenino, Maddie Shanks, 18, from Mossyrock, CJ Backman, 23, an Army veteran who grew up in California but now calls Washington home. In order for these students to make it to the championship, they had to be selected based upon a three-minute video audition. 

“When Secretary of State Kim Wyman got up to announce the winner and the runner-up, she was literally in tears from the last speech,” McQuarrie recalled. “She was especially moved by CJ Backman’s story about being raised by a single mom. After passing his flight exams and just about to realize his dream of becoming a pilot, he was told that he had an eye disease that would prevent him from flying, but his mom refused to let him be a victim.”

McQuarrie hopes that next year the Statewide Inspirational Speech Championship can include competitors from many other community colleges throughout the state. He said that he is proud of this year’s speakers. 

“They are true professionals and I could put any one of them in a state championship venue and expect them to be state champion. Next year — God willing — will be the true test,” McQuarrie said.

The student’s inspirational speeches can be viewed here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=2H1wRly5Xac&feature=youtu.be.

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