When Emily Han, a Dougherty Valley High School junior and co-founder of the worldwide nonprofit organization Make a Statement, came to the United States from China, she was already a skilled public speaker at 9 years old.
"In China, when I was in elementary school, I was trained to be a moderator for a lot of events that were province-wide and even featured on television," Han said. "So I was a very confident person, and I started to lose some of that confidence. I felt like as someone who was in speech and debate and an international student, it was very unfriendly to people who might not be familiar with English, or might not have enough money to afford speech and debate tournaments."
Trying to resume her studies in public speaking, immersed in a culture and language that were foreign to her at the time, proved to be no small feat for Han. Not only did she find herself in unfamiliar surroundings, but Han found that others also regarded her as unfamiliar and an outsider, despite her wealth of experience as a public speaker.
"Everyone just kind of developed this mindset that to be naturally good at debate, you have to be a tall white guy who sounds very assertive," Han said.
Han continued to pursue speech and debate, and ultimately came to literally and figuratively find her voice as she gained proficiency in English in her new surroundings.
However, she noticed patterns in the culture and atmosphere of speech and debate organizations and competitions that continued to trouble her -- as she watched other girls, non-native English speakers, and students in general who didn't fit the traditional mold, grow discouraged and quit the program, saying they'd "had enough," while those with more privileged statuses and backgrounds exceled.
"Unfortunately I know so many people, especially predominantly female friends, who have dropped out of speech and debate," Han said.
Han said that while she stuck with speech and debate throughout middle and high school, and intends to in college, she understood why others would leave an atmosphere that can be competitive, stressful and ultimately unhealthy for some students.
"I think there is a lack of inclusivity in that space that I recognize, and I wanted to do something about it, because I experienced a lot of mental health issues to go through the hyper-competitiveness of a space where it just favored privileged students over the people who may not have had a lot of resources ... to start with," Han said.
Rather than trying to persuade others to stick it out in the existing climate, Han became determined to work toward improving that climate, and expanding the reach of speech and debate resources to those who might not otherwise consider taking it up.
"After a few years of assimilating into this American culture, and getting really familiar with speech and debate, I wanted to help other people recognize the power in their voices," Han said.
Han eventually seized the flexibility and time that the pandemic shutdowns of 2020 offered, launching Make a Statement that June, with her friend and co-founder, fellow Dougherty Valley High student Kaylan So. Since its inception, the organization has gained international reach, offering speech and debate resources, as well as peer support and mentorship, to students locally and abroad.
The goal of Make a Statement for Han and her fellow student organizers has been to increase the accessibility of public speaking education -- both for the sake of benefiting those who might not otherwise have access to it, but also for the sake of changing the culture and atmosphere in the speech and debate circuit that had threatened Han's own mental health at times.
"Just think about how when you were going through a hard time, you probably wished for someone with a similar experience to be there and tell you that it will be ok and give you some guidance," Han said.
"I feel like for me that person was really lacking during the time that I was stressed about assimilation, stressed about identity, stressed about an accent, about communicating with other people, and I wish there was someone who had gone through that experience to be there to give me some guidance on what I should do," she added.
Going into college, Han said she plans to use the skills she learns and the connections she makes to further expand the organization, and to continue making her own statements from within as she continues on the speech and debate circuit at the collegiate level.
She expects Make a Statement to continue to grow and develop as she and her colleagues do, and said she looks forward to expanding its reach not just to students, but to more adult mentors who can help it flourish.
In addition to helping other students through the organization, Han said she has benefitted from learning about herself, and gaining a sense of what motivates her, as a young entrepreneur and leader.
"Focusing always on advocating for those whose voice may not be heard is something that definitely plays a large part in my future," Han said.
More information on Make a Statement is available here.