HAZARD — Imagine giving a speech in front of a room full of your peers, however, you know none of them because you are the only one there representing your state. Now imagine that speech is part of an invitation-only, national competition in which you have to debate everyone you are giving your speech in front of. Now, imagine doing all of this as a 16-year-old.
Josi Stidham and Shivani Pampati, both juniors at Hazard High School, had just this experience at the 39th Annual Harvard Speech & Debate Tournament last month, where both girls walked away as nationally ranked debaters.
“I am biased towards these girls, but they work harder than many adults,” assistant speech and debate coach Effie Stidham said. “They are the top two congressional debate high schoolers in the state of Kentucky, now they are both nationally ranked. I mean, that’s a huge accomplishment for both girls.”
Stidham explained the competition was set up as a mock congressional debate, with 454 students coming from 107 different schools in 26 different states to debate as if they were on the Senate floor representing their state.
“These kids write and submit proposed pieces of legislation, and they have to do the research, it has to be like a piece of legislation you would actually see in [Washington] D. C.,” Stidham explained.
Josi said, even though it is a lot of work, she really enjoys debate because it gives her an opportunity to talk about world and national issues with other like-minded peers.
“You probably spend upwards of 12 hours researching before you go,” Josi explained. “It’s fun to go to these national tournaments where all these other people are so well-informed and you can have civilized conversations.”
The competitors were divided into 24 chambers with 20 students each and were put through three preliminary sessions, lasting three hours each. After those sessions, the debaters were eliminated down to nine chambers with 18 students each. Pampati made it to the quarterfinals, while Stidham advanced to the tournament’s semifinal round.
“Then, each school wins sweepstakes points based upon how well each competitor from the particular school performs,” Stidham added. “The number one school was a high school in California, and Hazard was second, we came in second as the best new school at this tournament.”
Coach Helen Williams said this was a major accomplishment, especially considering that Stidham and Pampati were the only students from Hazard, while most others schools were represented by as many as 10 members.
“I am so proud of them and the excellent work they are doing,” Williams said. “They have truly elevated the status of Hazard High School among Forensics, both [on the] state level and nationally.”
Pampati said she and Josi have been invited to numerous other debate competitions, though one thing stands in the way of going to them all.
“We were only able to attend Yale and Harvard’s because of the funding situation,” Pampati explained.
Most of the funds used for the trips to these competitions comes either from donations or from the girls’ themselves.
“I’m not going to beg — well, no, I am. We need donations to do these things,” Josi added.
Effie Stidham, who is also Josi’s mother, said participating in competitions like this one gives these students a sort of edge, and makes them ready for what they may want to do in the real world.
“I can truly see them on a national level leading our country, and it makes me very proud to know that someone from Eastern Kentucky — from Hazard, Ky. — has accomplished this,” she said.
While Pampati said she has ruled out working as a politician in the future due to too much dissent along party lines, Josi said she is leaning towards government work but is also considering another option that may seem like it is completely unrelated.
“I’ve pretty much narrowed it down to two fields that are completely unrelated, one being medicine and the other being a government-type job,” she said. “I guess the major thing that relates them is people, and I like to help with people and relationships and things like that. That’s where my interests lie.”
“I have no doubt that future senators, secretary of states, of defense, I have no doubt that these girls met some of those people,” Effie Stidham added. “So, even if they choose not to pursue politics or government, I feel that they are establishing relationships with the people who will be those leaders.”