A Year in the Life of Ripon Speakers Bureau

Photo of student wearing #spreadkindness T-shirt

On a cold Thursday afternoon in February, Ripon Speakers Bureau students huddled in Smith Hall. Shawn Karsten ’09 was in the room with them; Liz Molitor Taft ’07, Sarah Hopkins Stansberry ’11, and Ryan Greene ’10 were on speaker phone. The alumni shared advice from their past experiences leading breakout sessions for the Youth Summit of the National Association of Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE) held annually in North Carolina. The current members of Speakers Bureau had been selected to lead four breakout sessions. But they’d been asked to do something else, too: deliver the opening keynote for the entire event.

On Saturday, March 12, before an audience of more than 300 high school SAVE leaders and advisors from around the nation, six members of Ripon Speakers Bureau delivered a group keynote about their #SpreadKindness strategy to prevent bullying. As they spoke, local network news crews grabbed sound bites for the evening news in Raleigh, North Carolina. The students’ four breakout sessions filled to, and in one case over, capacity. Their topics ranged from how communication theories can be used to dissect and prevent stereotyping to helping SAVE chapter advisors understand the ways social media like Yik Yak enable anonymous harassment.

“The Speakers Bureau captivated the students through their #SpreadKindness message,” says Carleen Wray, executive director of the National Association of SAVE. “Students gained valuable tips and hints for addressing bullying in their schools and communities and how to #SpreadKindness. Youths broadened their knowledge base through the four breakout sessions (led by Ripon students) and left with valuable violence prevention tools to replicate with youths in their communities.”

Allison Macknick ’17 led the keynote and will never forget the experience. “Walking on stage, I could feel the energy radiating off of the students,” she says. “These were the people we came to help with #SpreadKindness. By the end of the speech, during my sendoff, the students were leaping to their feet, cheering and ready to #SpreadKindess at the summit and beyond. I have never been on such a speaker’s high!”

Community as Classroom
Developed and sponsored by Ripon’s award-winning Department of Communication, Speakers Bureau is a co-curricular program that empowers students to make a difference while developing advanced public speaking skills. “When we tell students about upcoming opportunities that are more than a little nerve-wracking, we remind them ‘we promised you reality,’ ” jokes Jody Roy, professor of communication.

Reality is the name of the game in Speakers Bureau: the program lets students make a real impact with real audiences. “There are things students simply cannot learn in a conventional classroom or competitive speech setting,” Roy says. “Speakers Bureau allows us to take students into the world, to encounter a wide diversity of audiences, to experience a completely different kind of pressure. There’s so much more on the line than a grade or trophy when you are speaking about an issue that matters deeply to your audience and to you.”

This year alone, the eight students in Speakers Bureau delivered presentations to more than 900 K-12 students. They advocated on behalf of those diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. They spoke with prisoners about issues of authority and compliance. They shared thoughts on embracing diversity with high school students in China. And those are just the highlights.

#SpreadKindness
For more than five years, Ripon Speakers Bureau students have spent three days each fall delivering bullying-prevention speeches to Ripon middle schoolers. Each year, the group designs up to 14 different presentations adapted to the unique needs of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders enrolled in both Ripon Middle School and Catalyst Charter School. This year, Speakers Bureau students decided to try something new: they flipped their approach. Instead of speaking against bullying, they created a #SpreadKindness campaign and supporting presentations which encouraged positive behaviors.

After the first day of speeches, Speakers Bureau students encountered clear evidence their message was working. Says Maddie Vanden Houten ’17, “When we returned to RMS after being there for just one day, we got out of the car to realize we were standing in a parking lot covered in sidewalk chalk drawings with #SpreadKindness written everywhere. We made an impact, and that was an incredibly humbling feeling.”

When Vanden Houten mentioned the overwhelming reaction to #SpreadKindness to family and friends in Green Bay, one of her former elementary school teachers invited Speakers Bureau to spread kindness there, too. Speakers Bureau students adapted their presentations for younger audiences and spent a day in Green Bay engaging third through fifth-graders in discussions about how they can make their school a safer and happier place for all students.

The success of the campaign is what netted Speakers Bureau the keynote spot at the SAVE Youth Summit in March. The local impact of the original presentations at Ripon’s middle schools in September has continued throughout the year and now can be seen all around town. RMS guidance counselor Todd Arft says, “I think the most impressive thing that came about with #SpreadKindness was changing the focus to being positively proactive. The students see the college students from the Speakers Bureau as positive role models. Because of this new direction from the Speakers Bureau, the middle school purchased T-shirts with that positive #SpreadKindness messsage and gave them to all the middle school students and staff to wear proudly.”

Behind Bars and Around the Globe
Four years ago, Speakers Bureau piloted the “speech exchange” concept at Fox Lake Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison. During a speech exchange, two panels of speakers, representing two different backgrounds, present on a shared topic and then engage in discussion with the full audience in attendance.

In November, three Speakers Bureau students — Garrison Anderson ’16, Allison Macknick ’17 and Lauren Hince ’18 — exchanged with a panel of six prisoners at Fox Lake before an audience of about 40 additional prisoners. The topic was Rules, Infractions and Punishments, with the college students describing policies at a liberal arts and sciences college and the prisoners discussing correctional system procedures. Discussion centered on comparing and contrasting the two systems, issues of social justice and how policies can encourage or discourage learning from mistakes.

The prisoners were very curious about the consequences of cheating in college. Hince recalls, “When speaking with the prisoners about honor codes and plagiarism, we explained to them that if a student is found with this type of violation, it can lead to expulsion. They thought this was fair until they heard that tuition is not reimbursed and loans still are expected to be paid in full. It was surprising to see their reaction to this news, because to me it seems so common-sense. This is one of the many examples from speaking in prison where I was able to see things from a different viewpoint.”

Roy adds, “At the same time, our students were shocked to learn that if they were to accidentally leave a pen behind and one of the men was found with it, it would be considered contraband and could cost the man up to 30 days in segregation (solitary). Like Lauren said, this program exposes all involved to different viewpoints and, really, to different worlds.”

Before speaking inside the prison, Ripon Speakers Bureau students must undergo a full background check and complete Wisconsin Department of Corrections Division of Adult Incarceration Volunteer Training. As a result of both the training and the experience of speaking with prisoners, the students learn a lot about the correctional system and the experience of incarceration. Of course, speaking inside a prison is, itself, eye-opening.

“More than any other regular event in Speakers Bureau, the speech exchanges at Fox Lake Correctional Institution provide the opportunity for students to learn to manage their nerves in what is, for most students, an extremely high-pressure situation,” Roy says. “No student is ever required to speak at the prison. But even students who want very much to do so are rattled the first time they hear the gate close behind them.”

The very idea of speaking inside a prison would unsettle most people, Roy says, but the same thing that causes that fear also provides the opportunity for a lesson that goes far beyond public speaking skills: the prison speech exchange challenges common stereotypes.

“There’s inevitably a ‘light bulb’ moment that happens while the students are inside the prison the first time, sitting in a circle with about 40 men of every race and ethnicity but all wearing prison greens,” Roy says. “As the students become absorbed in the moment, fully engaged in the discussion, they shake off their anxiety and realize something very important: ‘prisoners’ are people. They aren’t statistics or caricatures in TV shows. They are individuals with ideas and opinions, histories and futures. And the men involved in our speech exchanges are profoundly grateful for the opportunity to share ideas with the students, to learn from them and also to teach them.”

The speech exhange concept took a new, decidedly global turn this year as well. Early in first semester, Tom Beatty from the Ripon College Office of Admission invited Roy and Hince to meet with representatives from several Chinese high schools who were visiting campus. Preliminary conversations at that meeting evolved over the year into a new speech exchange partnership between Speakers Bureau and Liuzhou High School.

Roy and Liuzhou High School English teacher Liuying Wei worked out the basic parameters for an exchange involving prepared videos followed by live online discussion. The Chinese students selected the topic, how to get along with people from different backgrounds. Amberlee Perry ’18 led Speakers Bureau in preparing remarks about the topic, adapting those remarks to be accessible for English-language learners in another country and shooting and editing a video.

But Speakers Bureau faced another challenge with this project. The exchange could happen only if they could figure out how to use QQ, the Chinese equivalent to Facebook. Peng “Roc” Huang, associate professor of economics, is a regular user of QQ and volunteered to help. As a result, Speakers Bureau students learned how to use a specific English-translation program which enables navigation of the Mandarin-based QQ social network.

“The Liuzhou students loved our video and we loved theirs. Unfortunately, due to an unforeseen scheduling conflict, we had to postpone the live chat until fall,” Roy says. “But the two groups of students will be corresponding via email this summer, and Liuying Wei, Steve Martin and I are already making plans for more exchanges next year.”

Preparing the Next Generation
Since joining Speakers Bureau, Garrison Anderson ’16 has spoken to hundreds of people on topics ranging from bullying prevention to communication strategies. But his most significant impact may have been on his smallest audience. Responding to a call through the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, Anderson provided an information session about Huntington’s disease in a rural area of Wisconsin where members of a local family recently had received an HD-positive diagnosis. Presenting at the family’s request to a small group of their friends and neighbors, Anderson was able to provide information to help them understand the family’s needs and how best to provide support. The family expressed deep gratitude for Anderson’s help.

Anderson’s work as a member of Speakers Bureau has made a significant difference in many lives, including those of other students in the program. As the 2015-2016 Speakers Bureau student coach, Anderson mentored his fellow students, providing feedback on their speeches and devising and implementing skills development experiences for the group. Andrea Schulner ’16 served as this year’s student manager, organizing logistics and travel for off-campus engagements, negotiating the group’s complex prep and practice schedules between events, and, of course, teaching by example as one of the group’s most experienced speakers.

“Speakers Bureau is an extremely talented group of individuals,” Anderson says. “Being the student coach allowed me to teach skills and tools of public speaking to the best students Ripon College has to offer. Having the privilege of being a part of this group has prepared me for future teaching experiences in an educational and professional environment.”

In August, Anderson will begin pursuing his master’s degree in communication at Colorado State University, where he will join Ripon Speakers Bureau alumni Clarence Sanon ’15 and Ryan Greene ’10. Speakers Bureau alumni are well-represented at Pennsylvania State University as well: Jeremy Johnson ’12 recently completed his Ph.D. coursework and Ben Firgens ’14 is preparing to defend his master’s thesis.

The Speakers Bureau experience has had a big impact on how these young educators now teach their own students. Firgens says, “Speakers Bureau taught me how to build my classes around the needs of individual students, letting their unique goals, interests and motivations shape the material we practice in speaking assignments.”

Ripon Speakers Bureau already has been planning for next year. The group will continue its work with Ripon Middle School, plans to make #SpreadKindness presentations available to more K-12 schools in Wisconsin, and will be expanding the virtual speech exchange program with Liuzhou High School. Opportunities to speak at Fox Lake Correctional Institution, on behalf of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America and for other issues will take shape over the summer.

Vanden Houten and Macknick, both rising seniors, will step into the student leadership roles. Two other veterans — Lauren Hince’18 and Avery Herbon ’18 — will return, and six new students who excelled in Advanced Public Speaking will join Speakers Bureau in the fall.

New member Shelbi Buettner ’19 says, “Advanced Public Speaking gave me the opportunity to talk about topics that really matter to me. I hope to expand my knowledge and continue to (advocate) in Speakers Bureau.”

Thomas Phillipsen ’19 agrees. “What inspired me to continue into Speakers Bureau was the opportunity for continuing real-life applications and advancement in my public speaking skills. While in Speakers Bureau, I hope to learn how to captivate and inspire an audience while making a difference in their lives.”

Steve Martin ’96, associate professor of communication and chair of the department, says, “We know the next generation of Speakers Bureau students will make a difference. The only real question is how big do they want it to be?”

To learn more about Ripon Speakers Bureau or to inquire about booking students to speak, contact Jody Roy, [email protected], or Steve Martin, [email protected] There are no fees for Speakers Bureau presentations.

(Photo: Ripon eighth-grade student Alejandro “Alex” Rodriguez)