By Gavin J. Quinton
and Mia Alva
For some people, public speaking is a skill that comes as naturally as reading or writing. For many of us, it’s more like taxes: avoid unless absolutely necessary.
But for Burbank’s Mihika Chechi, her talent in speech and debate is the result of years of hard work that took her from English language development classes to the stage of the National Speech and Debate Tournament, the largest academic competition in the world.
She left with a first-place trophy.
Her team of five members — enlisted from several local high schools including Burbank High School, Harvard-Westlake School, Fullerton Union High School and Westlake High School — smashed records at this year’s tournament, emerging as first out of 183 teams from seven countries.
“In a word, I would describe my experience at the National Speech and Debate Tournament as having been surreal,” Chechi told the Leader.
Chechi’s team was one of two teams representing schools from the Los Angeles area.
They passed through 13 rounds of debate, involving both prepared and impromptu motions, before taking the podium of the final round.
“For my whole team, the months leading up to the tournament were spent in countless hours of conducting speaking drills, writing cases, and running scrimmages against other teams,” Chechi said.
“The week of the tournament was a whirlwind of last-minute revisions and, admittedly, not getting nearly enough sleep each night. To have all of that culminate in our team emerging as first out of 183 teams from seven countries, and breaking numerous, historic NSDA records in the process, was not only exceptionally validating, but also a tremendous bonding experience.”
Out of a tournament panel of 36 judges, the team received 33 votes in favor of their positions, which is a rare result.
Coach Brandon Batham from BHS mentored the team through the tournament and competed with another team that also won last year. He was surprised to see this year’s team win as well.
“Since 2015, we had the lowest ballot drop total in the event’s history,” said Batham. “Last year in 2022, the final round decision was 10 to 3, and at the time, that was the highest ballot pickup in a final round in the event’s history. This year, our final round performance was a 12 to 1 decision, which is virtually unheard of.”
Chechi was born in India and lived there for several years before immigrating with her parents to the United States at 6 years old. Because she didn’t yet speak English, she spent her first few years in elementary school taking English language development classes.
“Ironically, English soon emerged as my strongest subject and favorite class in school,” Chechi said. “I absolutely loved reading, writing, and anything related to words or storytelling in general. In high school, through debate, I also discovered a true passion for philosophy, politics, history and the humanities at large, which has allowed me to explore a range of related extracurricular activities and interests over the years.”
Chechi was always drawn to public speaking. She took to writing and memorization from a young age and gave speeches and monologues in school contests and community plays growing up.
“When I found out about the Speech and Debate club at Burbank High in my freshman year, a whole new world of possibilities opened up for me,” Chechi said.
“I quickly fell in love with the activity, exploring numerous different events over the course of four years and growing tremendously in my ability to think critically and communicate effectively, both within and beyond the tournament space.”
Having served as vice captain of Burbank High’s Speech and Debate team, dominating competition has become something of a habit for Chechi.
In addition to her recent results, she championed the National Speech and Debate Association’s first-ever Asynchronous Big Questions Tournament this year in April, winning a $1,000 college scholarship from the John Templeton Foundation. She was ranked first by all eight judges, a rare feat known as a “picket fence” in debate.
Big Questions is a one-on-one, shortened debate format in which students debate over philosophical questions.
Results aside, Chechi said that the best part of speech and debate is how transferable the skills are to daily life challenges.
“I’ve been able to refine a number of skills, from researching and essay writing to being able to lead others and adapt well under pressure. These skills have already helped me tremendously in a host of different settings.”
Most recently Chechi delivered a 75-minute presentation at an academic conference attended by thousands of educators.
“Hundreds of debate rounds have given me the practice and confidence to speak in public settings such as this without getting overwhelmed,” she said.
Another lesson she learned was one she didn’t expect at the outset: trust.
To prepare, the team had a few months before the tournament to practice topics provided to them. Suffering through early mornings and late nights, they researched and wrote their cases.
Topics in the tournament ranged from artificial intelligence, the rise of nihilism in pop culture and people’s democratic right to secede, to name a few. Some required them to formulate arguments on the spot and play off of each other’s statements while maintaining continuity in their arguments.
“In the weeks leading up to the tournament, the five of us became incredibly close friends, which crucially allowed us to work harmoniously in high-pressure, make-or-break impromptu rounds,” Chechi told the Leader.
“I definitely believe our cohesiveness as a team is what pushed us through to the finish line in the end.”
While preparing for June’s tournament, Coach Batham wanted to make sure the students understood the format of the tournament.
“I was most interested in making sure that the students understood this debate format, [which is] relatively new within the national circuit,” said Batham.
Most topics were given to the team an hour ahead of the round and they had to work together to come up with an approach. They couldn’t talk to Batham or use the internet. The competitors were judged based on their style, presentation, content and strategy.
“There was definitely a moment where I felt very confident,” said Batham. “Everything just started to come into place, it all just happened naturally.”
In the final round, the team surprised hundreds in the crowd and more watching at home by earning 12 out of the 13 judges’ votes to secure the win.
“Four years ago, at my first-ever novice tournament, I could never have imagined that I would someday close out my high school debate career on the final stage of the National tournament,” Chechi said. “I’m exceptionally grateful that I had the chance to do so, while building lifelong memories and incredible relationships along the way.”
Chechi attended Joaquin Miller Elementary School before moving to John Muir Middle School and finally BHS. She graduated this year as Salutatorian and is now an incoming first-year student at the London School of Economics, where she will be studying politics and philosophy.
“As I now prepare for the next chapter of my life outside of Burbank, I realize that all of the invaluable experiences and memories I’ve cultivated here will guide me along the way,” Chechi said.
Chechi’s immediate plans are to use college as an opportunity to learn as much as possible, she said, not only in her academics but also to get exposure to diverse perspectives from around the world.
She is also active in projects related to educational equity, civics, and youth engagement, and plans to use her education exploring how those topics fit into the broader field of international relations.
“And, of course, I definitely plan on continuing my debate career in college — I still feel there is a lot I have left to learn and gain from this invaluable activity,” Chechi said.
First published in the August 19 print issue of the Burbank Leader.