What began as a requirement through her elementary school ended up making for a historic life-changing experience — one to the tune of about $23,000 in college scholarship funds — for now Princeton University freshman Samiksha Gaherwar. The 18-year-old former Forsyth County resident reportedly is the first student from Georgia to win the Optimist International World Oratorical Championship. The oratorical contest, which dates back to 1928, is the second most-popular program of Optimist International, which also annually hosts an essay-writing contest for students.
The scholarship funds — with Gaherwar receiving between $15,000 for the world championship combined with other amounts for contests leading up to the worldwide contest — come in handy “in the face of a very hefty college tuition bill.” Still, she considers “the greatest award” to be “what it will symbolize to me in the future: a reminder of the virtues of patience, hard work and optimism. I’m just as excited to be the first Georgian to win the world championship. I love that I am representing an incredible education system and community from home!”
Students under age 19 compete at the club level, with the opportunity to advance to different levels such as area and district before potentially reaching the highest level possible: the world championship.
Gaherwar, who graduated valedictorian from Lambert High School in Suwanee, first participated through her school, Johns Creek Elementary, also in Suwanee, as a fifth grader.
“All fifth-grade students were required to participate in the oratorical as a part of our English class,” said Gaherwar, adding, “Ten-year-old me was so devastated by my loss back then that there’s actually a picture in the yearbook of me crying!” Still, she persevered, thanks in part to the Forsyth-Cumming Optimist Club through which she competed. Over her eight years of competing in the oratorical, Gaherwar participated through either that club or the Sawnee-Cumming Optimist Club.
She said Optimists at the club levels “were very supportive and encouraged me to compete year after year.”
For the worldwide contest, Gaherwar joined other students in person July 21-22 — with some competing virtually — at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. Her family — mom Neetu Chauhan, dad Suresh Gaherwar and younger brother Aayush Gaherwar — were on hand to support her. Gaherwar says for eight years, her dad came to “every level of the competition.”
This year, at each level, students spoke on the 2022 topic of “Staying Optimistic in Challenging Times.”
The worldwide win for Gaherwar, whose family originates from India, proved a “surreal experience,” she said.
“The journey there was almost too perfect — the type of ideal coming-of-age story I’ve only seen in movies,” said Gaherwar, who, at the top of September, began her freshman year at Princeton, where she plans to major in operations research and financial engineering.
Gaherwar credits “experience” with helping her to prepare for such a milestone win.
“Every speech is different,” she said, “and it took me years to discover the themes that resonated with the audience the most, optimize my presentation style to balance emotion and clarity, and find my authentic voice as a speaker. Perhaps it’s cliché, but experience is the best teacher!”
While experience may have been her teacher, Gaherwar found one major lesson to be one of perseverance. “Every year I would inch a little further,” said Gaherwar. “In fifth grade, I won the class level, in middle school, the school level a few times. In early high school, I won the county, then zone, and so forth. Every year after I lost yet again, I would remind myself of one of the central tenets of the Optimist creed I spoke on — ‘to forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.’ Every year was another opportunity to remain optimistic and continue forward.”
Public speaking, Gaherwar finds, proves a draw to her for its “versatility of language and expression, from using vocal modulation to transform the meaning of a sentence to weaving together narrative stories to reveal an underlying message. To me, public speaking is an incredibly applicable and omnipresent art form.”
The former NASA Langley Research Center intern, who attended Riverwatch Middle School in Suwanee, offers some advice to others — both for when it comes to public speaking and when it comes to sticking to goals.
“I know it’s hard to believe, but, in my experience, communication is more important than content. Even if your thoughts aren’t as weighty or nuanced as you’d like, your ability to be compelling and persuasive in your own perspective will touch the audience far more than the most elaborate reasoning,” she said. “The most potent speeches are oftentimes simple and structured, clear and cogent. Your delivery gives the content life and meaning, never the other way around.”
As for not giving up, the 2022 Dream Girl Miss Teen India-USA who played varsity flag football, says “you won’t always see an upwards trend. Some years, I lost levels of competition I had won the prior year. Sometimes you’ll be ‘worse’ than you were yesterday, and, at that point, it’s important to see the bigger picture and keep persisting.”
That persistence ultimately “pays off,” she added.
“Nearly every year, I spoke about an inspiration of mine — from my grandfather to Michael Jordan. Finally, when contemplating who to write my last speech on, I suddenly realized that I too had adopted their practice of optimism as I returned year after year, wiping away my tears and reaching higher than I had the prior year. I believe delivering a personal story resonated with audiences far more than retelling the stories of others. It was original, reflective and came from the heart.”