Though not everyone gets a trophy (and that’s a good thing), student competitions are a win-win when it comes to skill building. In a weekend, you could learn how to network, boost your self esteem, showcase your strengths, build your resiliency and open your eyes to new perspectives.
“It’s fun, challenging, frustrating, exhilarating and rewarding,” says Bentley faculty member Asbed Kotchikian, who joined professor Hans Eijmberts to advise a team of Bentley students at the 2015 Northeast Regional Model Arab League Competition this fall. “You arrive not knowing many people, and within a couple of hours you’re sitting down negotiating with them.”
The Bentley team, which took home two honorable mentions, was among students from regional colleges and universities challenged to serve as delegates for Middle Eastern countries (Bentley was assigned Jordan). Participants put themselves in the shoes of diplomats and other foreign affairs practitioners to represent the needs, concerns, interests and foreign policy objectives of a government.
The Model Arab League is one of the many student competitions available (no excuses for not finding your niche!). For example, budding artists can take over the Google homepage with the Doodle 4 Google art competition (U.S. grades K-12). Bentley undergraduates built a cluster computer in just 48 hours at a Supercomputing Conference. Engineering and science majors have the chance to develop aerospace design concepts (maybe even a NASA prototype) in the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkage competition. Economics and finance lovers can compete in the Fed Challenge.
Check out this video from the Fed Challenge 2014.
No matter the topic (or whether you took home the trophy), Kotchikian sees four immediate takeaways when you join these types of competitions:
1. Getting Knowledgeable
Whether you’re competing in a field you’ve been passionate about for years or you’re tackling something new, you’re going to become more knowledgeable.
“Having to represent a country that I only learned about in such a far-removed manner was a hefty task, but it was a very informative and interactive way to learn about the way different countries operate economically, politically and socially,” says Bentley senior Taisha Troncoso, who represented Jordan in the economic council at the Model Arab League Competition. (She debated on how to stop the disbursement and proliferation of money that supports terrorist organizations.)
2. Learning How to Debate
Debating isn’t about winning an argument; it’s about making rational and factual backing up of statements. Listen without interrupting and then use credible facts to build upon what others have said. Be aware of your language and how you project yourself: Don’t be too aggressive, avoid too high or low a voice, be confident and stand up when speaking.
3. Understanding the Art of Schmoozing
You need more than a passionate speech to win someone over or gain support, according to Kotchikian. “It takes a lot of personal contact to make yourself known to others before you take to the podium. People have to like you before they like your idea.”
Student competitions provide a relatively relaxed venue to try out networking in context where it’s not scrutinized, he adds. Start off by making small talk and trying to find common ground (such as the competition topic or issue).
Follow this advice on Networking 101.
4. Boosting Your Confidence
The more you practice, the better you become. “Get out of your comfort zone,” Kotchikian says of the opportunity to meet other college students and mentors.
This worked for Bentley senior Ghaida AlBaltan, as she served as delegate of Jordan in the political affairs council at the Model Arab League. “I tend to be observant at first, so it was hard to openly speak up and debate. But by the second and third day, that wasn’t a problem anymore, as I was more comfortable and knew how things worked.” (AlBaltan debated on issues such as sovereignty, insurgency, minority and women political participation, and geopolitical shift in the Middle East.)
“Regardless of who you are, it’s just a matter of working and being motivated to learn,” Kotchikian says of getting involved. “Let others motivate and help you.”
AlBaltan already sees the broader benefits of competing. “It helps build character, and gives you experience and preparation for bigger events in your personal life and career. Even if you don’t win any awards, just participating in a competition boosts your confidence and knowledge in so many ways.”