Club Profile: Communicating on Campus

Club Profile: Communicating on Campus

From Massachusetts to Dubai, college clubs enrich academic life.

By Paul Sterman

Photo Caption: Vikas Jhingran poses after winning Toastmasters' 2007 World Championship of Public Speaking.

Vikas Jhingran is a textbook example of how college clubs can benefit their members. A native of India, Jhingran was a doctoral student at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when he joined two campus Toastmasters clubs. In 2007, he advanced steadily toward the World Championship of Public Speaking, winning at each level – and continually honing his contest speeches at club meetings.

“I absolutely received valuable feedback from club members,” he says.

How valuable? Jhingran won the International Speech Contest that year, at the International Convention in Phoenix, Arizona.

But the two clubs on the Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus – Toastmasters at MIT and the Humor and Drama club – didn’t simply help Jhingran score big at speech contests; the clubs also had a dramatic impact on his Ph.D. studies in ocean engineering. At club meetings he delivered presentations centered on his field of expertise – explaining the nature of tsunamis, for example. As a result, Jhingran says he became a much more confident and commanding speaker.

The career payoff? After earning his doctorate, he landed a position as a senior engineer at Shell Oil in Houston, Texas, and says his communication skills are vital to success in his job. “It’s beneficial to be in college clubs and to be in Toastmasters in general,” says the 36-year-old, who is now a member of the Speaking of Shell Toastmasters club. 

Academic and Other Benefits
Jhingran’s comments echo those of other members in college and university clubs around the world. Students say their Toastmasters training is a valuable asset, helping them gain confidence and communicate more effectively in academic – and other – settings.

“Toastmasters practices have helped me with my oral presentations and my leadership skills,” says Amin Karbassi, a Ph.D. student in civil engineering at University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada. Karbassi has been a member of the McGill Toastmasters at McGill University in Montreal since 2007. The club has flourished since forming at the university more than 10 years ago; last year, it had 65 members.

Dustin Chan, a member of a campus club at the University of California in Irvine, credits Toastmasters with helping him relax when he talks – to “unstifle” himself, as he puts it.

“It’s helped me in social situations at school,” says the UCI sophomore. “Toastmasters helps you to be more outgoing in general.”

College clubs are a vibrant mix, reflecting a cross-section of the campus population: undergraduates, graduate students, staff members, and sometimes faculty, alumni and community residents as well. College and Toastmasters make a perfect fit: People go to college to learn and grow, to experience new people and cultures, and to develop new skills. All those things happen in a Toastmasters club as well.

Carolynn Bramlett and Kim Hau Kerwin are staff members at UCI. They joined the campus Toastmasters club – called ZotSpeak – to improve their professional communication skills. It’s certainly been worthwhile, they say. What makes the club rewarding, they add, is being part of such a diverse group. In addition to the cultural diversity, students and staff vary widely in age and life experience. Yet they all work together toward a common goal.

“I learn so much from the young people,” says Bramlett, the administrative assistant for the UCI Center for Research on Immigration, Population and Public Policy. “On this campus, a lot of professors tell their graduate students, especially those for whom English is a second language, to join Toastmasters to improve their second-language skills. It’s fascinating for me to hear these students give speeches. And it’s fun to work with them, mentor them and watch them grow.”

Jennifer Blanck, founder of Georgetown Toastmasters at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., agrees that college clubs are a dynamic demographic. The longtime Toastmaster, who is assistant dean of career and alumni services at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, relishes being with staff and students from so many academic disciplines. Club meetings, she notes, are always stimulating.

“The speech topics are so varied, and the people are so great,” Blanck says, “that no matter what mood I’m in, at the end of our Toastmasters meeting I always leave happy – or happier.” 

Overcoming Challenges
Membership turnover is an inherent difficulty for college and university clubs because college students are by definition a transient group. They’re only on campus while school is in session and often leave for holidays. When they graduate, they often leave the state or country for a job. In addition, when students are facing especially stressful times in the school year – finals, for example – club attendance can be way down.

But many college clubs work with their students. In Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the Dubai Men’s College club holds two meetings a week – one in the morning, one at night – to accommodate student schedules and interests. Dean Sheetz, who teaches in the school’s business department, is a member of that club. He says all the students in the group speak Arabic as their first language, meaning that delivering their speeches in English is that much more challenging. But they tackle the test head-on.

“I really admire these guys,” says Sheetz.

He notes that many graduates of Dubai Men’s College become leaders in Dubai’s business and legal communities, and the DMC club helps them develop the leadership skills they need to succeed. “I believe that the more students we can get involved in Toastmasters at the college, the better off our country as a whole will be five, 10 and 15 years down the road.”

Tellingly, three of the college’s last four Student Council presidents have been Toastmasters.

For college students in technical fields – such as engineering and the sciences – Toastmasters can fill a crucial void. These students are often so deeply immersed in their technical training and research that they’re not as comfortable when it comes to communicating their findings. Yet Jhingran says colleges often fail at providing communication training for students in technical fields.

“That really hurts you when you come out of school and try to get a job in your industry,” he notes.

“Communicating is a very important part of the work we do,” he adds, “and to not be able to capture what you want to say in a very concise and effective way can be a big drawback in your career.”

Toastmasters Do Some Teaching
At MIT, Jhingran and fellow club member Bil Lewis – drawing on their Toastmasters training – presented a three-day course, open to the entire student body, on how to deliver technical presentations more effectively.

“We talked about the importance of getting your big points across without getting buried in the details [of the data],” says Lewis, a member of MIT’s Humor and Drama club. “That’s a really common problem. The speakers will focus so much on the specifics, and then they’ll say, ‘Oh, and by the way, we’re curing cancer.’”

One young scientist who has flourished in Toastmasters is Kandarp Shah, a member of UCI’s ZotSpeak club. He joined the group in his first year as a doctoral student – in developmental and cell biology – and the skills he developed in the club have produced major academic and career benefits. Shah, who credits club practice and feedback from fellow members, has used his speaking skills to ace presentations to UCI faculty, teach science to local high school students and present his research at high-profile academic conferences.

“It becomes more and more obvious over time,” he says, “that Toastmasters is definitely helping me.” 

Paul Sterman is an associate editor for the Toastmaster magazine and a member of Le Gourmet Toastmasters club in Costa Mesa, California.