“Learning with love is transformative,” professed Arthur Martins ’22.5, one of six students who participated in the 2020 Spencer Prize Grand Championship in Oratory. The contest took place on Tuesday, Feb. 18 in the Mahaney Center for the Arts in front of an audience of over 200 students, faculty and community members who gathered to hear students deliver six-minute speeches on myriad topics such as xenophobia, imposter syndrome and ableism. One first-year from each commons competed, including Aubrianna Wilson ’23, Constance Gooding ’23, who is this year’s Grand Champion, Devon Hunt ’23, Rain Ji ’23, Citlali Aguilera-Rico ’23, as well as Arthur Martins as a “wild card” competitor.
With the Spencer Prize competition, all the stories trace back to a single prompt: “Connect something you learned in a Middlebury class to something you care about.” This prompt, which bridges academic study and personal narrative, is at the core of the Spencer Prize experience. Not only does it highlight what students learned in their classes during the first semester, it also allows community members to get a glimpse into experiences and stories they might not otherwise hear about in day-to-day conversations.
“Making personal connections to what you’re studying is just as important as receiving good grades,” said finalist Citlali Aguilera-Rico. “Looking at your Middlebury experience solely through the lens of academia will blind you to the personal and emotional development you can experience through learning.”
An aspect that differentiates the Spencer Prize Grand Championship from other events centered around public speaking is that it is only open to first-years and first-year Febs — and there is a nomination process. Professors nominate students in the fall.
[pullquote speaker="Citlali Aguilera-Rico '23" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]Making personal connections to what you’re studying is just as important as receiving good grades.[/pullquote]
“A lot of people who might not compete [do] so because someone on the faculty suggests them, which is a sign of recognition and honor,” said Dana Yeaton, the director of Oratory Now. After being nominated, they are officially invited to participate in the competition. If they agree to do so, they go through a qualifying round hosted in their Commons during J-Term.
There are five qualifying rounds, and this year there were 48 total participants. At the end of each Commons Championship, one champion emerges victorious in addition to two runner-ups, all of whom are voted on by a panel of volunteer faculty judges. Each Commons Championship also results in a speaker crowned the “people’s choice” winner, voted on by the audience members.
“There’s something almost magical about everyone coming together in a Commons lounge on a cold winter night to listen to their peers talk about something they care about (and to enjoy the hot chocolate bar),” said Yeaton. Over the course of the night, students are able to build connections with each other as they find common ground in the messages and stories told through the speeches.
Oratory Now, a student-driven, faculty-directed organization founded in 2014, focuses on training and research in oral expression. It began producing the Spencer Prize both “for Midd Kids to feel like they’re a part of a speaking culture” as well as to help students speak more eloquently in class, according to Yeaton. The Spencer Prize was named as a tribute to the late Professor Emeritus of History and former college trustee John Spencer. Over the course of his thirty-five years at the college, Spencer was known for his emphasis on oratory expression in the classroom and his J-Term workshops that focused on helping students become better speakers.
The Spencer Prize Grand Championship has become so successful in its three year existence that the College has given it formal recognition. Specifically, Old Chapel recently fully endowed the competition in perpetuity, which means that even if Oratory Now stopped existing as an organization, the competition would still have funding, and would likely be picked up by the SGA or another group on campus in order to ensure that it stayed running.
The expansion of Spencer’s operational team has contributed to its success. Compared to last year, there were a number of small improvements that enhanced the overall experience. For example, the Middlebury Mamajamas, a gender-inclusive a Capella group, opened and closed the Championship this year, singing four songs in total. At first, the connection between a Capella and personal speeches might not be all that clear, but Yeaton explained that in many ways, singing is just another form of story-telling.
Roni Lezama ’22, the 2019 Grand Champion, co-emceed the event alongside GiGi Hogan ’22. Both are Head Coaches with Oratory Now. The Spencer Prize’s lasting impact is its ability to continually involve its participants in mentoring future generations of public speakers. Oratory Now is training 55 coaches this Spring; nearly all the new coaches are first-years that were engaged in Spencer over J-term. In addition, many of the people on the production team for Spencer this year participated in the competition the year before or saw the show.
My biggest takeaway from the Spencer Prize Competition? Your story matters and your voice is powerful. Be brave enough to speak your truth; you never know who it could resonate with and impact.
Editor’s Note: Rain Ji ’23 is an Arts & Academics editor at The Middlebury Campus. She was not involved in the editting of this article.
Daleelah Saleh ’23 is an Opinions Editor.
She intends to pursue an International Global Studies major with a Global Gender Studies track.
Her coverage at The Campus has included contributions to arts and opinion. In addition to working at The Campus, she is a peer writing tutor at the CTLR and has been involved with WRMC, Verbal Onslaught, and Oratory Now.