By Carol Harrison DTM

University students on Christmas break usually like to relax, head home and not worry too much about the next semester. But for the second year Pharmacy and Nutrition students at the University of Saskatchewan, this break also means preparing an icebreaker speech to be presented in front of Saskatoon Toastmasters.

The Toastmaster clubs in Saskatoon have had a unique partnership with the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition. Each January, for the last approximately thirty years, the second year students in these colleges are required to take a five-session Speechcraft program run by members of Saskatoon clubs in order to receive their degree.

It began because several of the large pharmaceutical companies realized that the students were well-trained in their fields but lacked some communication skills when they had to deal with patients and clients. It takes a great deal of work ahead of the actual sessions to coordinate an event this large and yet a good format has been established, allowing consistency between all the groups of Toastmasters and students.

I have been privileged to be part of this program since I joined Toastmasters in 2003. By January 2004 I marveled at the intense program designed to help these students achieve leadership and communication skills as well as introduce them to the various clubs meeting in the city who would welcome them to continue their educational journey at their regular meetings. I did some evaluations, helped with timing and mostly watched in awe as students progressed week to week.

Each year I went back and have coordinated our club’s small group of students for a few years as well as coordinating the entire event twice. Presenting one of the teaching sessions in a large lecture theatre to over 100 students and 40-50 fellow Toastmasters is a challenging move from our small clubs and helps us learn to project our voice or use a microphone. The learning is not limited to the students.

Usually the second Saturday in January, representatives of ten Toastmaster clubs meet at the U of S campus where we meet over 100 less than eager students. The full day Saturday session includes various educationals presented to the entire group by members of Toastmaster clubs on organizing your speech, overcoming fear, table topics, and evaluation. Before lunch the students and Toastmasters break into their small groups to have the students practise Table topics. By the end of the day, each student has also given their ice breaker and been evaluated by the Toastmaster member.

In four evening sessions the students continue giving speeches, taking turns introducing each other and evaluating both orally and in their manuals. Of course, each session involves the fun of a Table Topics session.

This long-running, huge Speechcraft endeavor has given many students an opportunity to become familiar with Toastmasters and what it has to offer. It gives Toastmaster members the chance to practice their presenting and mentoring skills as they learn by helping others.

I remember the terror some students have expressed at having to get up in front of about nine of their peers and present a prepared speech. Several times I have had a student almost quit the program they worked so hard to enter because of this one compulsory component. Yet with encouragement they have stuck it out, tried their best and often excelled to the point they wondered how they could have contemplated quitting the first week.

I have also watched relatively new and shy Toastmasters take on new roles of mentoring, coordinating a small group and growing in their own abilities and confidence. It is a unique blend of experience and tentativeness that produces amazing results in five short sessions. It makes a full January schedule for the many members who participate, and at times I have almost persuaded myself to not brave the frigid winter temperatures, give up one Saturday and four evenings simply to work with these busy students. Each club earns a little money for their coffers, but I go back again and again because I love to watch the growth and confidence building.