April 18, 2019  

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Dr. Wendy Atkins-Sayre is an assistant professor of communication studies and director of the Speaking Center at The University of Southern Mississippi. Recently, Atkins-Sayre took a few moments to reflect on her current responsibilities and outside interests in a question-and-answer format.

Q: What is your hometown and educational background?

A: I grew up in Portland, Texas. I have a BA and MA from Texas State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia.

Q: How long have you worked at Southern Miss and when did you arrive here?

A: I started working here in the fall of 2007, so this is my fifth year.

Q: How did you become director of the Speaking Center?

A: I was director of the Agnes Scott Speaking Center when I interviewed for the position here. The Agnes Scott directing position came about through the belief that I could direct the center if I worked hard enough, lots of self-taught skills, and a large sampling of persuasion when I interviewed for the position. I was lucky to land that job and work with a fantastic writing center director. By the time I came here, I could rely on my experience.

Q: What kind of programs/services does the center provide?

A: We work with students, staff and faculty to improve oral communication skills. Students can come to us at any stage of the speech-writing process for help with brainstorming, organizing, researching, outlining, delivery and visual aids. We also work with students on interviewing skills, with graduate students on oral defenses and with faculty on improving lecturing skills. We have four practice rooms with flat screen televisions, laptops and cameras. Students sit down with a trained staff member and work to improve their presentations.

Q: Did you have trouble speaking in public as a teenager? If so, how did you overcome it?

A: I suppose I did at first, but I competed in my first forensics tournament as an eighth-grader and I was hooked from there. I competed in debate throughout high school and college and was a communication major from the day I first stepped onto campus as a college freshman. I still feel nervous in some speaking situations, but I’ve learned how to use that nervous energy to my advantage.

Q: What is the most valuable tool or lesson a person can use to become a better public speaker?

A: Experience. We may feel like we want to avoid things that make us uncomfortable, but that’s the main way to get over your fear of speaking. It might mean small steps like speaking up more in class or in meetings or major changes like joining the new Southern Miss Debate Society or joining Toastmasters.

Q: What animal best describes your personality and why?

A: A cat. If I could lounge around all day in the sun, I’d be a happy person. Of course, I have too much energy to really pull that off, but it’s a nice thought.

Q: How do you prefer to spend your free time?

A: At the moment, most of my free time is spent on the sidelines of a soccer game (I have two children – 10 and 13), but I love reading, knitting and watching a good movie.

Q: Can you name a national figure you never tire of hearing speak in public?

A: I never grow tired of hearing Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches. Every student who takes my class will read or hear “I Have a Dream” at some point. I try to teach them the tools for really understanding the art that went into creating a speech of that caliber. I also think we are fortunate to have a president who is such a skilled orator.

Q: What’s the best advice you ever received and from whom?

A: My high school forensics coach, Charlotte Brown, told me that I should major in speech communication. At the time, I was committed to going to law school to study human rights law. That, of course, never happened, but I am so fortunate to have received that advice from her.