NU’s Speech Team wins national legacy award after two years of challenges


Photo courtesy of Jo Scaletty

Alex Lawson, Jo Scaletty and Lynn Ahn present the NU Speech Team’s accolades from the April tournament. The team has struggled with the pandemic and a lack of support from the University, but the students who run it aren’t giving up.

Joshua Perry, Staff Editor

The Northwestern Speech Team earned the Founder’s Award at the 50th National Forensic Association Championship Tournament this April in its first major in-person competition since the pandemic.

The award recognizes the team with the most cumulative points earned in the years it has participated in the tournament. Earning 4,211.5 points in 24 years of NFA Tournaments, NU won the award for the first time, the team’s advisor, Sophie Stern, said.

“It’s not something that you can get without some tremendously successful years and a lot of them,” Stern said.

The three students who represented NU at the tournament — Weinberg sophomore Alex Lawson, SESP freshman Lynn Ahn and Communication junior Jo Scaletty  — also helped the Speech Team place third in its division. 

Lawson said the Founder’s Award is a significant honor that represents the legacy of the NU Speech Team.  

“It was really great to know not only how we did at the tournament, but how dozens of people … have put their effort and their passions and their interests into getting that award,” Lawson said.

For many on the team, this was cause for celebration after two difficult years of struggles. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Speech Team pivoted to a Zoom format, which members said wasn’t easy.

Lawson said the virtual competitive format felt unsatisfying. Instead of enjoying the camaraderie of a typical speech competition, they said everyone logs onto their computer and performs to an invisible, unresponsive digital audience.

“Doing speech online was not my favorite thing in the world because a lot of what’s fun about speech is the community building aspect — both within the team and also meeting people from other schools across the country,” Lawson said. “When you’re on Zoom, it’s just harder to do.”

The team was already struggling with other adjustments before the pandemic started. Stern said The School of Communication decided to cut ties with the Speech Team in early March 2020. The Speech Team is not entirely sure why this decision was made, Stern said, but the severance has been a huge obstacle, as the team was forced to reconfigure as an independent student group without any administrative support.

Now a student-run club, the team has access to some funding from the Student Organization Finance Office. However, it lost the house where members gathered for social meetings and practices, financial sponsorship from the School of Communication and a paid coaching staff. Stern, previously a paid coach, stepped in as the new advisor for the team and had to resume their role unpaid.

The team is a huge time commitment and asks a lot of students, Weinberg and Bienen sophomore and Club President Brian Vogel said. Without reliable institutional support or a team house to use, Vogel said managing the club is hard, but not impossible. 

“All of these problems — we’ve overcome them,” Vogel said. “And we have kept going more or less as we always have, but it’s still definitely a lot more work.”

The club has to move its meetings to different locations from week to week. Stern said the team doesn’t even have a proper place to display the new Founder’s trophy.

But the students on the team have been resilient, Stern said, and the club will continue to recruit new members and keep competing next fall. Stern said the team’s priority is making sure students who want to participate in speech still can. As long as nothing gets in the way of that goal, she said the team will continue to exist.

“Without all of these barriers, who knows where the team could be,” Stern said. “But the fact that we have had all these barriers, and these students wanted enough to continue to pursue this activity and succeed, it’s really inspiring to me.”

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Twitter: @joshdperry

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