Severn has always encouraged students to discover their own voices, whether it is through their work in the classroom, on the athletic field, on the stage, or one of the many other creative outlets offered.
Students who choose to participate in Severn’s Oratorical Society, led by Upper School English Teacher Dr. Jackie Baugh, are quite literally finding their own voices through public speaking. Students, past and current, have learned valuable skills through their public speaking experiences at Severn that continue to serve them even now, long after they have graduated.
Most students are usually introduced to public speaking through Dr. Baugh’s American Public Address course, and can volunteer to participate in outside speech contests, or are encouraged by Dr. Baugh herself to participate. Students can participate in a wide variety of speech contests, including (but not limited to) American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Optimist International, Rotary International, Sons of the American Revolution, and various other local competitions. Public speaking opportunities at Severn include being chosen by Dr. Baugh to speak at the National Honor Society (NHS) induction ceremony during the fall semester, coffeehouses, or even introducing other speakers at assemblies. Dr. Baugh also worked with students in Mock Trial for several years, where students were coached by real lawyers. “Mock trial is thinking on your feet in a real-world scenario,” said Dr. Baugh. “It also teaches you persuasion and debate skills.”
Mock trial is one of the few instances of public speaking at Severn that requires students to think on their feet. Most students spend many months preparing, researching, and prepping with Dr. Baugh for a single speech. For those chosen to give a speech at the NHS Induction ceremony, prep work starts in the summer, many months before the ceremony. Students work with Dr. Baugh on their speech topics, writing, and practicing many times before the big day arrives. For senior Sophia Amplo ‘23, being chosen to speak about scholarship for the 22-23 NHS ceremony was an honor, but also provided a challenge. “It was difficult because I had never written a speech before,” said Amplo. “The mentoring I received from Dr. Baugh leading up to the speech was incredibly valuable, and I was able to learn so much as a writer and performer from her guidance.” Amplo nailed her speech and enjoyed speaking to her fellow classmates about something that mattered to her personally.
Alumni Gregory Field Price ‘02 still utilizes the preparation, advice, and skills learned while participating in public speaking contests throughout his time at Severn. Now an attorney, Price took 1st place nationally at the Sons of the American Revolution contest his senior year, after taking 3rd place the year before. When asked how he was able to secure top place in a national contest, he immediately recalls a piece of advice Dr. Baugh gave him while preparing. “It’s not just about writing a speech,” said Price. “What Dr. Baugh really taught me was how to understand the audience and how you can tap into the emotions of the people in the room.” September 11th happened just weeks into Price’s senior year, and for his speech topic, he chose to trace the journey of the Gadsden flag (more commonly known as the Don’t Tread on Me flag) from its origins in the American Revolution to present time. At a time when American patriotism was at an all-time high, Price knew he had a winning speech. “I knew my audience,” said Price. “It was after September 11, 2001 and it resonated with the people who were judging.”
Senior Jamison Wildt ‘23 has participated in multiple public speaking opportunities at Severn, including competing in the Sons of the American Revolution contest at both the local and state levels. He was also chosen by Dr. Baugh to speak about service at this year’s NHS assembly. For those who were in the audience that day, his speech about service and his work with the Gold Star Mothers of Maryland was extremely memorable and left several audience members in tears. The Gold Star Mothers of Maryland is a non-profit organization of mothers who have lost sons or daughters in service of the American Armed Forces, and several of their members were in attendance for Wildt’s speech, which he considers his most memorable speech given during his time at Severn. “It was an incredible honor to share their mission, ‘honor through service’, with my school,” said Wildt. “Having 6 Gold Star Mothers attend the assembly is something I will never forget, and hearing how much my speech meant to them was my proudest high school achievement.”
More Than a Speech
Severn has a rich history of student successes in speech contests, with students often rising through local competitions and succeeding nationally. While those successes are celebrated, Severn also emphasizes the importance of discovering other victories that don’t come with a trophy. One of Dr. Baugh’s favorite stories doesn’t involve a first-place finish, but instead someone who completely forgot one of their speeches altogether. After freezing on stage during a competition, alumni Darren Smith ’05 told Dr. Baugh that he was done, not just with speech contests, but with public speaking in general. Dr. Baugh wasn’t sold. “I felt that his experience wouldn’t be complete until he saw that he could be successful,” said Dr. Baugh. “I told him, you have to get back in the saddle.”
Smith told his story while speaking to Dr. Baugh’s Short Stories Seminar and two Creative Writing Seminars:
“After much preparation and several successful earlier rounds, I made it to the state speech finals in Ocean City, MD. I got up on stage to give my memorized speech, fully confident, and halfway through, I forgot my words. I was so upset! I scored poorly and obviously did not win the competition. Upon my return to Severn, I told Dr. Baugh what happened and how devastated I was. She told me, “You cannot conclude this speech experience with such a bad memory. You need to do it again.” I pleaded with her to not make me do it again. She then said something that, during the moment, was so profound and greatly resonated. She said, “Darren, when you’re learning to ride a bike, after the first fall, you don’t quit and stop riding bikes forever. You get back on, and you keep trying until you learn how to do it.” Dr. Baugh didn’t take no for an answer; instead, she reassured me and told me that I had to do the speech one more time - in front of the entire Upper School during a morning meeting assembly. I initially thought, “No way!” However, after some more encouragement from Dr. Baugh, I finally agreed to it… As it turns out, I nailed the speech and received a standing ovation from my peers and teachers. I learned a valuable lesson that day about perseverance and about not allowing your mistakes to define your ultimate outcome. I’ve always been grateful to Dr. Baugh for believing in me and for getting me back in front of a crowd to deliver a speech the way I knew I could.”
While research, writing, and public speaking are all important skills to learn and hone, intangible skills such as perseverance, never giving up, and belief in oneself are incredibly valuable, and stick with Severn students well after they have graduated.
Long Term Skills for the Future
For most students, they have found that their public speaking skills have a positive effect on the arduous college admissions process. From interviews, to being able to write a compelling admissions essay, skills they have learned from Dr. Baugh and participating in speech contests have helped immensely with their college application process. Wildt, who will be attending the Coast Guard Academy after graduation, knows for a fact that his American Public Address class and experience speaking at the NHS ceremony has had a positive impact. “Without a doubt, this class has prepared me to be a more confident public speaker,” said Wildt. “I know that this will serve me well both in college and in my future career as a Coast Guard Officer.” Amplo, who has been accepted to the United States Naval Academy, felt prepared during the rigorous Naval Academy application process. “I earned so much more confidence, especially when talking to new people,” said Amplo. “It helped me during my interviews with members of Congress to get a nomination to the Academy. Without Dr. Baugh, I don’t know that I would’ve received a nomination at all.”
Alumni who have been exactly where current Severn students are make a point to come back and share their knowledge, often mentoring students in Dr. Baugh’s American Public Address course. Students are paired with an alumni mentor in their career field of interest, and interview them about the role of public speaking in their jobs. While some may be more obvious than others (lawyer, CEO, etc), students are often surprised to find out how much public speaking is utilized in other positions. During a recent field trip to New York City, Severn’s Investment Club and the Student Led Investment Portfolio (SLIP) met with Dolph Habeck ’94, who escorted them to SMBC Nikko Securities, Inc. where Habeck is a Managing Director. He shared a brief presentation that included what Nikko Securities does, his personal path to his current career as a banker, and what a typical day looks like for a banking professional. In addition, he spoke to students about his time at Severn, specifically skills learned through public speaking with Dr. Baugh. “If there is one thing I leave you with, it is to spend time with Dr. Baugh,” said Habeck. “The [public speaking skills] I learned from her were invaluable.”
Price also encourages students to become involved with public speaking, even if they might be hesitant at first. “There is not a career you can name that does not have an aspect of human relations and communications,” said Price. “Those who are hesitant should embrace it; get comfortable being uncomfortable. It will make you a much stronger job candidate.”
Even though it may seem a long way off, when asked if he would ever come back to mentor Severn students, current senior Wildt was quick to agree. “Oh yea, absolutely,” he laughed. “That’s the dream.”