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How speech and debate helped a Fair Oaks student find his voice

Graduating high school senior Julian "JJ" Christensen rose above mental health struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic after finding a love for speech and debate.

Julian "JJ" Christensen is a self-proclaimed high school athlete. But his sport does not involve kicking a ball or racing. Instead, it involves speaking. Christensen is a senior at Summit High School in North Fair Oaks, where he founded the school's inaugural debate team and went on to win "Speaker of the Year" last March. 

"Being able to form your ideas in a cogent way and being able to present them in a quick manner, having full command of the English language and using it to get your points across the best," said Christensen. "It's a sport; you're developing skills to compete with." 

Christensen is confident, but he admits that's something that took practice. When his classes went online sophomore year during the COVID-19 pandemic, his grades began to slip. He described feeling claustrophobic studying from home and said his mental health began to decline. 

"I didn't realize how important being around other people was until everything was happening on a screen," Christensen said. "I didn't feel connected to anything." 

Looking for a way to form connections, Christensen signed up for debate as an elective class to take from home. He said it felt refreshing to make sense of complex world affairs in an organized classroom environment, where students regularly voiced their opinion while discovering new ways to communicate. He compares the skill of debating to "connecting the dots." 

"Debate was the class where everyone actually wanted to talk. It felt nice to have conversations with people in a structured manner and share what I was feeling," Christensen said. 

Christensen's debate class was sponsored by Silicon Valley Urban Debate League, a nonprofit organization focused on building skills through speech and debate for students in the region. SVUDL currently works with 13 high schools up and down the Peninsula serving predominantly students of low-income backgrounds to sponsor speech and debate classes at their schools. It targets schools that may not otherwise have access to speech and debate, giving students new avenues to improve their communication skills. 

"It behooves [students] to really dive into the nuance and understand more deeply what's going on so that they can better advocate for the policies that they want to advocate for. And then they need to be able to communicate that all clearly," said Executive Director of Silicon Valley Urban Debate League Rolland Janairo. 

When JJ Christensen returned to class in person at Summit High School for junior year, he enrolled in a speech and debate class for a second term. With newfound skills and a passion for what he was learning, Christensen and a friend in his class founded a speech and debate club at their high school. They assembled a small but mighty team to compete in local tournaments. Christensen said the team has placed in every tournament it has competed in.

In those tournaments, teams comprised of two students debate on a specific topic given five minutes before their round starts. They advocate for specific policy points and attempt to learn very quickly what the  other team is advocating for, and then poke holes in their arguments. After several successful tournaments, Christensen went on to win Speaker of the Year at Silicon Valley Urban Debate League's Championship Tournament in March. 

"What's good about debate is that you don't get to pick what side you're on. You get assigned a side, and you have to find sources to back that up," said Christensen. "I think it's better to get assigned a side you don't agree with because that forces you to do the sort of mental exercise of connecting the dots and triangulating your position."

Christensen is heading to Portland State University to study Creative Writing this Fall, with the goal of becoming a journalist that covers "conflict, religion, and culture." But even after he leaves for college, Summit High School's small but mighty speech and debate program will live on.

"That class is the one thing that kept me confident about school, kept me in it, kept motivating me," said Christensen. "I hope it will do the same for other students too."

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