SPRING HILL — When Elise Belcher stepped foot on the Spring Hill High School campus two years ago, she had no experience as a debater.
And for most Americans, the word “forensics” was short for forensic science.
Belcher, who just wrapped up her sophomore year at Spring Hill, has come a long way in two years.
The 16-year-old student during the course of the next few days will compete in the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) national forensics tournament with high school students from every corner of the United States.
The tournament was originally scheduled to take place in Albuquerque, N.M., but was changed to an online format in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The virtual tournament will be just as competitive. Now, instead of giving a 10-minute performance in Program Oral Interpretation (POI), Elise’s POI presentation will be available in a 10-minute video format. Video entries were due by Wednesday, June 17.
“(POI) is a collection of literature, poetry and drama along with news articles — basically, we can choose any form of published media,” Elise said. “The whole goal is to put it together to have an overall message.”
Bringing all these different genres of literature together, when normally they wouldn’t be connected, allows a story to be illustrated in a different way, Elise said.
Her POI category is expected to feature videos from 150 to 250 students. The top videos will advance through each round of the tournament, just as a student would during an in-person competition.
Only two students are selected from each district in Kansas to compete in the national tournament. Spring Hill’s district features several other schools including all the Olathe high schools and Paola High School.
Normally, students from each district compete in a daylong tournament, with the top two finishers qualifying for nationals. Because COVID-19 caused school buildings to be shuttered, the students were evaluated on merits such as their previous competition rankings.
“I was very excited to be chosen, but I didn’t expect it,” Elise said. “As soon as my coaches told me, I was very thrilled, but I also knew I had a lot of work ahead of me.”
Assembling all the components of the 10-minute piece is the most tedious part of the process, Elise said.
The first day, Elise worked on the project for 12 straight hours.
“From 8 a.m. to 8 pm I got in a work mode and I didn’t stop,” Elise said. “They weren’t all crazy 12-hour days, but it definitely took many hours to find all the pieces to put together.”
Once the pieces were in place, Elise said she spends at least one hour each day, and sometimes longer, practicing her performance. The competition is a week long, and the outcome should be decided by June 24-25, depending on the category.
The competition goes through several rounds. Elise said she is guaranteed to compete for at least two days.
No one in Elise’s immediate family has competed in debate or forensics.
Her family’s interests were in sports. Likewise, Elise played sports like basketball and volleyball through middle school heading into high school.
“I never thought I would pursue speech and debate, even at the beginning of high school, I didn’t think about it,” Elise said. “I still played volleyball and basketball and various sports, but I knew there was something always off. I knew sports wasn’t my passion, but I never knew what was.”
Elise said when she got to high school she enrolled in debate her freshman year because it sounded like something fun and she wanted to better her public speaking skills.
“And through debate I did pretty well and I thought it was very fun and I found my passion,” she said.
Elise said she learned through her coach about forensics, which is competitive public speaking.
“My coach said it’s a lot like debate but you kind of get to do your own thing and it’s more creative-based,” Elise said.
Elise went into forensics the first day of the semester not knowing what she was getting into until the class started watching videos of students competing at the national tournament.
“I thought it was so cool and I couldn’t wait to get started,” Elise said. “And it kind of took off from there.”
Elise said at first she was very nervous going into the first round of her debate and forensics competitions.
“I’ve done it so many times now, it’s kind of routine, and I think competing in a room full of people has been very helpful to me,” Elise said. “I feel confident speaking in front of a group, which is a really good life skill to have.”
Elise said she is grateful for her parents, Amy and Chet Belcher, who have been very supportive, and for all the support and mentoring from her coaches, Alix Kunkle and Joanne Kaechele.
Elise said she is considering two career paths, one as a therapist working with teens who have mental health needs, and the other as an English composition teacher and debate and forensics coach.
“I would really love to coach speech and debate because I think it’s such an impactful activity,” Elise said. “And it’s one of the only activities where young students are able to fully have the floor and share their voices and opinions.”