After helping to create a new speech and debate club, an Olentangy High School senior is ending his high school career on top.
Karan Agrawal, who also is one of the school’s valedictorians, is headed to Northwestern University in the fall to study engineering. But the brightest achievement of his senior year has nothing to do with science or math.
District leaders said Agrawal is the first Olentangy student to qualify for the National Speech & Debate Association’s national tournament, set June 16-21 in Dallas.
Because of a scheduling conflict, he’ll be unable to attend the tourney – but his accomplishment still stands alone.
It’s been a long journey for Agrawal, and one that started in middle school.
Along with a few of his middle school classmates, Agrawal was part of the first speech and debate club, led by Natalie Chubb, a parent volunteer.
“The first year, we were still trying to get things figured out,” he said. “Not everyone was 100 percent on top of things, so we just competed in a few things to get used to it.”
The group stuck together and formed a high school club as freshmen. When Agrawal competed his freshman year, he said he knew he could have a future in debate.
“I was competing with juniors and seniors who had been competing for a few years,” he said. “I didn’t have 100 percent of the knowledge of what was going on. I was still very new to it. But I ended up placing third. ... I thought it was cool that the judges saw something in the way I spoke. I knew I had some kind of raw potential.”
As he grew up and progressed in high school, Agrawal drifted toward math and science and realized he wanted to go into engineering.
But he said he “still liked learning about new topics and things that were going on in society,” and never thought of leaving the club. Instead, he felt it made him a well-rounded student and thinker.
“A lot of my interests are in math and science,” he said. “This is something that, especially going into my freshman year, I wanted to do but didn’t think it would be a big part of my life. As I kept going, it became a larger and larger part. So even in college, I’m doing engineering, but I’m joining the speech and debate team.”
By his senior year, he wrote his college entrance essay on the topic, and said he felt it showed colleges that he’s “a person who has more interests and can do more things” than just math and science.
“It’s a skill that not many people these days pick up on – arguments and speaking and debating and public speaking in general – so it was definitely different than what other people were doing,” he said. “I really enjoyed it, and I saw the value in knowing how to research and speak. I wanted to stick with it to build those skills before high school.”
As a junior, Agrawal finished just one place away from qualification for nationals.
“So my senior year, I definitely wanted to back and qualify,” he said.
He finished in third place in the state competition – for the second year in a row – and earned enough points in his “regular circuit” to join the national circuit, which comes with another qualifying process.
By the time he was participating in the national qualifiers, he already had finished the state event, so he said he wasn’t intimidated by the jump in competition, which was “wasn’t as tough as I think it was in the final round of states.”
After a daylong process of debating more than a dozen pieces of hypothetical legislation in three different rounds, Agrawal earned the qualification he strived for.
But after four years of work – and with college just a few months away – a scheduling conflict meant he couldn’t justify putting in the work required for the Dallas event.
“I had something right in the middle,” he said. “It is (disappointing), but at the same time, nationals is a lot of work. I think senioritis kind of kicked in.”
While he sees his qualification as “a big accomplishment,” he said he has more pride in what he and his classmates built with a speech and debate club that will outlast him.
“Speech and debate has always been a huge journey for me,” he said, “so I’ve never made it about one specific accomplishment. I’m more proud of the fact that we started as a club that really wasn’t aware of what was going on and we were really inexperienced. Within four years, we were able to qualify eight or 10 kids to states and have kids go to the final rounds at states.
“So I’m more proud of the club than I am necessarily my individual accomplishments.”