In September 2019, when Devam Sisodraker started at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada, he sought out Toastmasters. As a student of computer science and mathematics, he says, “Being able to speak confidently and simplify complex ideas is what separates people in very technical fields, and I wanted to be able to do that with ease.”
His father had told him about Toastmasters initially. Then during the university’s clubs day—a time to learn about campus organizations—he spoke with members of UBC Toastmasters. He joined the university-based club the next week.
Sisodraker likes the convenience of having a club that’s integrated with his life as a student. He also likes the club’s format. “The meetings and content are geared toward a younger audience that many students can relate to,” he says.
Although anyone is welcome, the club membership is mainly students, with a small percentage of alumni. Sisodraker says people outside those two groups don’t stay for long; instead, they join other nearby clubs.
UBC Toastmasters was chartered in March 1979 and is one of the oldest university-based clubs in the world. It started as Walter Gage Toastmasters, named after a past university president who was known for his public speaking. The club changed its name in 2020 after realizing the old name was causing confusion with a residence hall named Walter Gage. Many thought the club was just for people living there.
According to Sisodraker, the key to the club’s longevity is fun. Speeches and Table Topics® are focused on shared experiences and common university culture, such as a favorite first-year experience. “Our club aspires to be a place where people can get away from stress,” he says. It’s also a nonjudgmental and inclusive space.
There is a natural connection between universities and Toastmasters through the shared understanding of the value of experiential learning.
Although university public speaking courses are available, Sisodraker says they focus too much on presenting slides. Through Toastmasters, he’s learning to think on his feet, adapt to the situation, and keep an audience engaged. “Toastmasters is well-rounded, and we offer a positive and friendly environment where all members learn public speaking from every angle,” he says.
Vaishnavi Tadikonda of Anurag Toastmasters agrees. Tadikonda is pursuing a mechanical engineering degree at Anurag University in Hyderabad, Telangana, India. She joined Toastmasters during her first year of studies. She likes the convenience of attending meetings on campus and the fact that the university pays half of the dues for every member.
The club membership is almost entirely composed of students and, like UBC Toastmasters, focuses on creative and fun meetings. “Sometimes we organize debates or have fun themes like recreating The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” she says. The club also hosts university speaking contests and holds meetings with special attire, such as Halloween, Christmas, and various Indian festivals.
Tadikonda joined to overcome stage fright. “On the first day of my university life, I was asked to stand on the stage and speak a few sentences to introduce myself,” she says. “The moment I stood on the stage, my legs and hands were shivering. My mind went blank. I could barely speak.”
Then she joined Toastmasters. Six months later, she had another opportunity to stand on a stage and introduce herself. “This time, I nailed it,” she says.
She also became Vice President Education for her club and can see herself transforming into a leader. Through Anurag Toastmasters, she can make mistakes in a safe environment, learn a wide variety of new topics, and network with Toastmasters in different clubs, cities, states, and countries. She doesn’t believe she can get that experience from a course or another campus club. “All the other clubs in my college are restricted to the compound walls of my college, but Toastmasters isn’t one of them,” she says.
Staff- and Faculty-Focused Clubs
There are also university-based clubs for just staff and faculty, like Boston College Toastmasters in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. The college established the club for staff and faculty as a welcoming and safe place for peer learning.
Lavette Scott-Smith, IT training and event specialist, attended an open house to learn more about Toastmasters and felt comfortable immediately. She joined and started participating right away.
Scott-Smith appreciates the fact that the club members are only staff and faculty. She describes the club environment as “a space not dependent on position or rank, where people can be authentic and grow together and develop deep relationships.” Because everyone is familiar with the campus culture, the club feels family oriented.
She also values the chance to gain exposure to skills, tools, and education that can be applied to her job. In addition to her ongoing meeting participation, Scott-Smith accepted a club officer position, which is strengthening her leadership skills. The club started a quarterly digital newsletter in June 2021 to help with communication, outreach, and membership retention, and she learned a new communications platform to distribute it.
Campus Community Clubs
Then there are clubs like Key Toastmasters at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, with members from the broader campus community. The membership comprises graduate and undergraduate students, staff, faculty, and local residents.
Chartered in April 1964, Key Toastmasters started as a community club and transferred to a university-based club in 2008. School of Medicine Research Associate Wang Zm attributes Key Toastmasters’ longevity to its diverse membership composition, success in developing members’ skills and increasing their self-confidence, convenient location, and family-like group.
Zm joined the club to improve his communication skills in English. Table Topics has been particularly helpful for him. “I don’t fear an impromptu public speech now,” he says. “Although Table Topics is a very short speech, it works well for building confidence, quickly organizing a talk, and handling an awful situation.”
He sees everyone benefitting from Toastmasters’ structure and holistic learning approach—something people wouldn’t get from a public speaking class. In particular, he cites Toastmasters’ system of feedback as a differentiator from university courses. “Toastmasters helps students in job interviews and members in their careers, such as promotion, communication, and collaboration,” he says.
Skyline University Nigeria Toastmasters in Kano, Nigeria, also has a diverse membership. The club chartered in March 2021 with students, staff, and faculty. The university’s goal is to offer students, who make up more than half of the membership, an opportunity to develop public speaking and leadership skills.
Student Services Department Head Sekh Nazimul Islam joined to be a better communicator with his students and engage with them. He has experienced progress in his goals and more. “I have so far been able to enhance my managerial and leadership capacity vividly,” he says.
Through the meeting roles, such as evaluator and Ah-Counter, he has strengthened his critical-thinking and active-listening skills. “It has equally taught me an effective way of giving constructive feedback,” he says. He’s also achieved leadership success as Club President by motivating and engaging members in the Toastmasters program.
If you’re a college student about to graduate, watch this video for interviewing tips from Toastmaster Victoria McQuarrie.
Why University Clubs?
There are approximately 500 university-based clubs active around the world. Over half of these clubs are in Asia, with 25% in India alone. One-third are in the Americas, including 25% in the United States. Throughout the year, three to six university-based clubs charter each month.
There is a natural connection between universities and Toastmasters through the shared understanding of the value of experiential learning. Toastmasters can also fill a void in curricula that don’t offer communication and leadership courses, especially in technical fields. Plus, in a university setting, there are built-in channels for communication and marketing.
It’s beneficial to develop communication and leadership skills and confidence at any age, but the earlier the better. In addition to the Pathways education program, Toastmasters provides volunteer and team management growth opportunities—something not all students might have access to.
Members are also surrounded by other motivated people. They can connect with individuals they would never interact with on campus or know outside the classroom—meeting new and diverse people in their clubs and through the global network. University-based Toastmasters clubs tend to be more inclusive, especially of younger members. Lastly, for students especially, convenience makes a difference.
University Club Challenges
Like most clubs around the world, university-based Toastmasters clubs changed to online meetings when the pandemic hit. For some, meetings continued as scheduled. Others struggled in the transition. Anurag Toastmasters and Key Toastmasters both saw a shift in membership. Their student members were less likely to attend online meetings. Some clubs are moving back to in-person meetings or offering a hybrid option, and students are returning.
“Toastmasters helps students in job interviews and members in their careers, such as promotion, communication, and collaboration.”–Wang Zm
The regular academic calendar also presents a challenge. During exams or breaks, students often don’t attend meetings. Clubs with significant student membership can see higher than average turnover, as students’ schedules change each semester, and they tend to move away after they graduate.
For clubs with a mix of students, staff, and faculty, there can be power dynamics to navigate. Faculty can be difficult to recruit as members because many feel they are already good speakers and may not want to be in a club where they are evaluated by the very students they are teaching.
University Clubs Best Practices
For some clubs, opening to all campus community members or expanding to alumni and local residents provides more membership stability. Having a department sponsor the club can help with any monetary barriers to joining or meeting space issues.
Some clubs hold meetings on different days and different times of the day to adjust to the academic calendar. They offer flexible and creative programming and avoid scheduling meetings during key events or breaks. As Sisodraker notes, a strong officer team is a must.
It’s also important to use relevant marketing approaches for member communication, engagement, and recruitment. In addition to including standard sections—such as club meeting information—Boston College Toastmasters’ quarterly e-newsletter helps people get to know each other through new member introductions, member spotlights, and birthday celebrations. Scott-Smith’s favorite section is Skills Corner, which offers members challenges, tips, or tricks. A recent edition included a tongue twister to practice.
UBC Toastmasters posts fun announcements and video clips on the club’s Instagram and Facebook accounts. Officers contact people who follow the accounts to see if they’d like to visit a meeting or join.
University-based clubs help members get started on the right course of lifelong learning and growth. “Toastmasters is a confidence booster,” says Tadikonda of the Anurag club in India. “This transformation will help me in my career.”
Jennifer L Blanck, DTM is a member of 5 Star Toastmasters in Arlington, Virginia, and a regular contributor to the Toastmaster magazine. Learn more at jenniferlblanck.com.