September 24, 2023

Anand Rao: Courageous Conversations

Anand Rao, professor of communications and director of the Speaking Intensive program and Speaking Center

Anand Rao, professor of communications and director of the Speaking Intensive program and Speaking Center

No topics are off-limits at Anand Rao’s dinner table. The communications professor and director of UMW’s Speaking Center said he encourages his four children – whom all have been members of debate teams – to share their opinions. He has one rule: they must be willing to defend their ideas and open to listening to others.

Rao brings this philosophy to all the courses he teaches at Mary Washington, which include public speaking, rhetoric, argumentation and social media, as well as the First-Year Seminar classes. “I hope my students bring a variety of different political, philosophical and social opinions to our class discussions because I want us to learn from each other,” he said. “That’s not possible if we all have the same perspectives.”

It’s also why he chose to participate in UMW’s Courageous Conversations series, a collection of videos featuring faculty exploring ideas of diversity and inclusion. Rao tackles the topic of free speech in the 21st century and discusses the role colleges and universities play in preparing students to engage in civil discourse in a polarized world.

“A university campus is a place where students are engaging in courageous conversations daily,” said Rao, who holds a B.A. in philosophy and an M.S. and Ph.D. in rhetoric and communications from the University of Pittsburgh. “This project demonstrates not just that we need to engage, but that we must learn how to do so in a respectful and professional way that helps us seek out the best answers. It reflects how we can collaboratively develop and test new and different ideas.”



Q: What brought you to Mary Washington?
A: I became acquainted with UMW when I visited the campus as an undergraduate when I was on Pittsburgh’s debate team. Though they were fierce competitors, I had great interactions with UMW students, who were bright, hard-working, energetic and motivated. Tim O’Donnell, who is a communications professor and now Associate Provost for Academic Engagement and Student Success, told me about the position in 2002. Because I held UMW in such high regard, I knew it was an opportunity that I wanted to explore.

Q: How do institutions of higher education find the balance between free speech and allowing inflammatory discourse on campus?
A: There are ideas that could be offensive to others, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider them. We should critically engage those ideas, discuss what may make them offensive, and we should always be willing to engage in civil discourse. A college campus that doesn’t allow free speech isn’t really participating in the intellectual enterprise that we take pride in at Mary Washington. But in the same way you can’t shout “Fire!” in a public theater, you can’t encourage violence or harm toward others. Public safety is always a consideration. Our words have consequences and we should show concern for how our words impact others.

Q: What is the best part of your job?
A: I love helping students develop their own voice, particularly those who are apprehensive about public speaking. Through my role as director of the Speaking Center, I haven’t experienced anyone who we aren’t able to help speak confidently in front of an audience. We hear all the time from employers and graduate schools how prepared UMW students are to succeed.

Q: What role has social media played in creating conflicts and can it be instrumental in finding a way out of them?
A: There are reasons to be pessimistic, because the echo chamber reinforces the worst of your own ideas. But social media also provides great opportunities for reaching out of those silos in ways we were never able to do in previous generations.

Q: What is the one thing in your office that means the most to you?
A: I have a picture of my son, who is a sophomore at UMW, giving a speech outside of Harvard’s Widener Library, and a picture of my daughter debating the British National Debate team. I also have photos and art work by my younger son and daughter.

Q: What is one of your favorite Mary Washington memories?
A: When Congressman John Lewis spoke at commencement, right after the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. I took him to see the bust of James Farmer, and he shared stories about him and the work they did together.

Q: What are you currently reading or have read recently that inspired you?
A: I just started “When: the Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” by Daniel Pink, and I’m reviewing a variety of open educational resources for public speaking.

UMW to Host 2015 NACC Conference

The University of Mary Washington will host the 2015 National Association of Communication Centers Conference on April 17-18, giving professionals across the country the opportunity to share in research and discussion about communications centers.   Information and Technology Convergence Center The two-day session will take place at UMW’s  Information and Technology Convergence Center. The NACC conference, now in its 14th year, focuses on management and utilization of communication centers. The conference will feature more than 90 presenters from 25 different colleges and universities. More than 100 are expected to attend, including faculty, staff, and student consultants from communication centers. With the theme “Come Together at the Center,” keynote speaker Lauren Bell will discuss how communication centers can interact with other academic services and give tips on how to improve communication centers for students. Bell is a political science professor and dean of academic affairs at Randolph-Macon College. The conference will be a win-win for UMW and other colleges, according to Anand Rao, associate professor of communication, director of UMW’s Speaking Intensive Program and the Speaking Center, and planner for the 2015 conference. “Hosting the conference is a wonderful opportunity for the UMW Speaking Center consultants to engage and learn from colleagues from across the country,” said Rao. Registration information, directions and hotel reservations can be found on the conference website. For additional questions about the conference, contact Rao at

Speaking Center – Services for Stafford Students

The Speaking Center has extended services to the Stafford campus. Stafford students that need help with class presentations, interview preparation, or public speaking can make an appointment with the Speaking Center at 540-654-1347 or Consultations are held in the ITCC (Room 437) on the Fredericksburg campus Monday through Friday.  Please see our website for more detail:

Speaking from the Heart

Tom Pacheco '14 uses his award-winning debate skills to help others.

Local High Schools Participate in UMW Workshop

Public-Speaking-WorkshopThe Speaking Center and the Office of Admissions co-sponsored the Public Speaking  and Advocacy Workshop Feb. 1, 2014. The workshop included instruction on effective speaking, delivery skills, handling communication apprehension, and advocacy, given by Anand Rao and Tim O’Donnell. Students gave a three to five minute speech that they prepared in advance, and also participated in a town hall debate. Speaking center consultants observed those speeches and debates and provided feedback to the students. A total of 20 students participated, including students from Colonial Forge High School, Mountain View High School, Stafford High School, Spotsylvania High School, Riverbend High School, and the Fredericksburg home school speech and debate club. You can find more information about the workshop at:

UMW’s Speaking Center Achieves National Certification

The University of Mary Washington’s Speaking Center recently received certification from the National Association of Communication Centers, making UMW one of only eight certified communication centers in the country. UMW Speaking Center staff (left to right): Mariah Young, Russell Michelson (lead consultant), Cate Stackhouse, Michael Friedmann, Abbie Yirrah (lead consultant), Alex Obolensky, Danielle DeVille, Jerome Mueller, Catie LeBouton, Ray Celeste Tanner, Kailey Krystyniak, Madison Thorpe, Erin Raderstorf, Anand Rao (Speaking Center Director), Tom Pacheco (lead consultant) The certification is based on a review of the training program of the center’s tutors and consultants. At UMW, Speaking Center consultants are undergraduates who receive training to provide peer tutoring and consultations to fellow students. “The center’s training program was revamped this past fall and now provides broad support and communication training for new consultants,” said Anand Rao, associate professor of communication and director of the Speaking Center. “The center does more than just work on public speaking assignments – the center’s consultants run workshops and classroom presentations on a variety of communication topics, and work with individuals and groups of students on presentations, class discussions and interviews.” UMW’s Speaking Center was established nearly 20 years ago and has been housed in Combs Hall since 2002. The center will move to the new Information and Technology Convergence Center this summer. Last year, the center served more than 1,600 students through individual consultations, class visits and student workshops. For more information about the center, visit or contact Rao at (540) 654-1546.

Esther Yook Publishes Article

Yook, Esther09Esther Lee Yook, director of the Speaking Center, published an article, “The Effect of Communication Centers on College Student Retention: An Argument,” in the Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, Vol 14, No 3 (2012).


UMW Speaking Center Director Publishes Book

UMW Speaking Center Director Esther Yook co-edited a book on communication centers in higher education, published by Lexington Books.  “Communication Centers and Oral Communication Programs in Higher Education” is a collection that examines the centers that support communication departments or across-the-curriculum programs as higher education focuses more attention on the communication field. The text addresses theoretical issues covering topics such as the importance of communication centers to higher education, and the effects of communication centers on retention, critical thinking in the center and ethics.

UMW Speaking Center Director Receives Top Paper Award

Esther Yook, director of the Speaking Center and the Korean Program, received the Top Paper Award at the National Communication Association in November 2011 for her manuscript “Communication Centers and Retention in Higher Education:  Is There a Link?”

She also co-presented a short course on establishing communication centers and chaired a Korean American Communication Association session on challenges for Korean American scholars in academia.

Esther Yook

Esther Yook, director of the UMW Speaking Center, presented “Communication Centers Spanning the Continent:  Visual Ideations and Models” and “Communication Centers as the Golden Gate of Oral Communication:  Great Ideas for the Center” at the annual convention of the National Communication Association in San Francisco, Calif., in November.  At the same conference, Yook also served as a poster session judge and as chair of the paper session “If You Build It, They May Come:  Empirically Identifying Motivations Surrounding the Use of Communication Centers.”