Ashleigh Clyde ‘26 can’t help but laugh when she recalls learning that the term “forensics” could apply to something other than crime scene investigation.
“My mom and I attended a club and extracurricular fair when I began high school (Osbourn Park High School in Prince William County, Virginia). We saw a table that said, ‘Forensics’ and I immediately thought about ‘forensic science’ and the TV show CSI. My mom said, ‘You should do this,’ but I wasn’t at all interested. I told her, ‘I don’t want to dig in dirt.’”
Once Clyde realized that this particular table was promoting forensic activities that relate to speech and debate, she had an immediate change of heart. “Throughout my entire childhood I had engaged in public speaking at my church and elementary school. I had always been involved with it in some form or fashion, but I had never done competitive public speaking. I fell in love with the idea and that was how it all began.”
During her high school career, Clyde earned distinction as a forensics participant, advancing to state competition each year while serving as president and captain of Osbourn Park’s speech and debate team. During her senior year in the spring of 2022, she became the first Prince William County student to win first place in original oratory at the Virginia High School League forensics state championship. Recently, the Virginia House of Delegates passed House Resolution No. 482, a commendation introduced by Delegate Danica Roem to recognize Clyde for her achievement.
For Clyde, the two years she spent developing her presentation, “Willy Wonka’s Worst Nightmare,” not only helped her hone her speech and debate skills but also ignited an enduring passion for advocacy. “My speech focused on childhood commercialism and corporate social responsibility,” she explains. “Corporations are fueling America’s epidemics in obesity and vaping, and I sought to expose how their marketing strategies are affecting our country and our future, because children are our catalyst for the future.”
Clyde used the theme of the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a way to engage the audience, but the core of her speech relied on considerable research as well as input from experts such as Alex Molnar, a research professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder “and practically the founder of the term ‘childhood commercialism.’ I interviewed him about his work and my interests, and one thing that caught my attention was when I said there was really no initiative from anyone to advance the conversation about this issue. He interrupted me and said actually there were people doing it, but very few. It was up to me to try and broaden the audience. It then became kind of a mission for me to spread the word on this.” Currently, Clyde and Jaclyn Johnson ‘24 are collaborating on a research paper about childhood commercialism for an economics class taught by Visiting Associate Professor of Business Rathin Basu.
When she began her college search, it was Hollins’ national recognition for student activism that caught Clyde’s eye (in 2020, The Princeton Review ranked the university among the top ten schools in the country for politically involved students). “I wanted to be surrounded by students who are passionate about activism, regardless of their field of study,” she says.
Clyde is seizing a chance to grow Hollins’ culture of activism during her first year on campus, thanks in large part to the course she took during the January 2023 Short Term called “Trial and Error.” Taught by Assistant Professor of Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies Courtney Chenette in conjunction with Roanoke City Circuit Court Judge David Carson, the class introduces students to substantive areas of law and the procedures of trial advocacy and includes sessions at the Roanoke City Courthouse.
“My intent before coming to Hollins was to be an attorney and this class helped me to determine if this is what I really want to pursue in life,” Clyde says. “You can’t get this type of experience anywhere else. Judge Carson said that this is something you don’t even get in law school, the immersive experience in just one month of following a judge, going to a courthouse, sitting down with different trials, and listening to different aspects of the court. We were law students as well, learning about tort law and family law. We all became enveloped in the court system.”
Participating in a mock trial, Clyde adds, “We were acting attorneys, we were bystanders, we were defendants and prosecutors, we were even the jury at one point.”
During the class, Clyde was inspired to create a speech and debate team at Hollins. “I felt like we could make something here. There is so much interest, especially from the remarkable women in the ‘Trial and Error’ class. Making this not only a club but also a competitive team will teach women here on campus about professional development, how to engage in public speaking, and how to feel more confident in themselves.”
As Clyde helps lead the effort to establish a speech/debate team on campus in the short term, her long-range plans remain clearly in mind. While attending law school and becoming an attorney remain firm goals, she also hopes to go beyond a legal career to become a journalist. “I want to be a morning news anchor on Fox 5 in D.C.,” she says. “I want to use my law degree and practice to become a better journalist, especially for my community. I think that would be an amazing opportunity.”
Within the Hollins community, “What I really want for myself, and my peers, is to educate but also to learn. I want to listen and understand, but also to tell stories. From what I’ve been exposed to for just about a year, I know that every single person at Hollins has a story and I want them to have a platform. My goal here is after I graduate to have memories of what I’ve done to impact one person’s story by either allowing them to have a space to tell it or just to listen to it.”
Above all, Clyde believes “the power of public speaking and the power of words is quite undeniable. I’m just honored to use my words to make some positive impact on this campus.”