The 2018 Sewanee Festival of Speaking & Listening

2018 Festival Cover Photo

Twelve finalists participated in the Sewanee Festival of Speaking & Listening’s four separate contests in late April. Held in conjunction with Scholarship Sewanee, the festival drew audiences from across the campus in an expansion of last year’s inaugural speaking contest.

The Festival kicked off with the “Speaking Science to the Public” Contest in McGriff Alumni House on April 24. Finalists presented research – scientific and mathematical concepts, theories, problems, and projects – to an audience of scientists and educated non-scientists alike, followed by perceptive questions and robust conversation. Sarah Oldfield, a senior Mathematics major, took first prize for her presentation, “Fisher’s Equation: Modeling Gene Flow Through Populations.” Senior James Jurgensen (Psychology) and Sophomore Vanessa Moss (Biology) took second and third prize, respectively, for their presentations “Uncoupling Sex and Gender” and “From Waste to Wetlands: A Small-Town Solution to Water Scarcity.” The judging panel included Professor Karen Kuers (Forestry), Professor Eric Thurman (Religion), and Sewanee Class of ’17 alum Julian Wright (Grant Coordinator for the Wellness Center), who observed that all of the speakers “were able to adequately and appropriately relay complex scientific study to a non-science audience, which in my opinion is one of the hardest and the most important things to do in scientific research.”

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On April 25, two contests in “Public Speaking in a Non-English Second Language” featured students speaking in Russian, German, and Chinese to a lively audience that filled the Torian Room of duPont Library. Sophomores Alexa Dudley (Psychology) and Alastair Ferenbach (Russian and International & Global Studies) were the finalists for the Beginning Speakers’ Contest. Ferenbach’s recitation of Joseph Brodsky’s “Song” in Russian dazzled and won first prize in the Beginning Speakers’ Contest, while Dudley’s Chinese rendition of Hai Zi’s “Facing the Sea with Spring Blossoms” delighted and took second prize. Professors Richard Apgar (German), Mark Preslar (Russian), and Yanbing Tan (Chinese) served as the judging panel for the Beginning Speakers’ Contest. “The contest showed the beauty of these languages (really, all languages),” remarked Professor Apgar.

For the Advanced Speakers’ Contest, finalists Marko Petrovic Cano (Art History and Spanish House Director) and Sophomore Weiqin Hu (Mathematics) delivered two original compositions. Cano’s “Surprises in Moscow,” delivered in Russian, took the audience on a journey through the eclectic sites of Russia’s capital city. Weiqin Hu toured the landscapes of her favorite city, Sonoma, California, in German. Cano won first prize and Hu took second. Professors Mark Preslar (Russian), Betsy Sandlin (Spanish), and Tom West (French, Russian, and German) judged the Advanced Speakers’ Contest. Professor Sandlin noted that, “It takes tremendous courage to speak a language that you are still learning, but to do so in a public and competitive forum is even braver.”

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The Festival culminated in the Public Speaking Contest on April 26. The Contest featured five finalists delivering persuasive speeches advocating change or alteration in existing attitudes, values, beliefs, and actions (policy changes, reconsideration of issues, public deliberation) on a highly controversial public issue. All five finalists were selected by class vote from the Advent 2017 and Easter 2018 sections of RHET 101: Public Speaking.

Junior Summer Menefee (Russian) presented “AI: The Solution to All Problems or the Cause of Our Imminent Doom?” to a packed house in the Torian Room and won first place. First-year student Emily Medley (Psychology) took second place with her speech “Ageism, Poverty, and Mental Illness in American Juvenile Judicial Systems,” and first-year student Ivana Porashka (International & Global Studies and French) claimed third place with her speech “There is No Planet B.” The exemplary list of finalists also included Debreiona Harris, a first-year student studying Biology, whose speech was titled “What’s On Your Plate?” and Annie Ramsey, a first-year student interested in studying English, whose speech was titled “Putting an End to an Intellectual Cage Match.” All three of the judges – Dean Terry Papillon (Classical Languages), Associate Dean Elizabeth Skomp (Russian), and Professor Catherine Cavagnaro (Mathematics) – noted the challenges in selecting just one winner for this contest, since all five finalists were marvelous in both preparation and delivery. The five speakers were “very strong,” according to Dean Papillon, which explains why the judges had such a “difficult” task in selecting just one winner. Associate Dean Skomp found it “especially impressive” that “nearly all participants were first-year students.”

2018 speaking festival final news photo


Last year’s Public Speaking Contest featured six finalists, including first-place winner Peggy Ball (’17), second-place winner Alexis Vannier (’17), and third-place winner Emily Donkervoet (’18).

Next year’s Sewanee Festival of Speaking & Listening is tentatively slated for 22-25 April 2019, and the application process for participating will begin early in the Easter 2019 semester. Please direct questions about the contests to Professor Sean O’Rourke (Rhetoric & American Studies), the Director of the Center for Speaking & Listening ( or Professor Melody Lehn (Rhetoric and Women’s & Gender Studies), the Assistant Director of the Center for Speaking & Listening (

More information about all of the contests can be found on the Sewanee Center for Speaking & Listening website: