Ms. Schurdak has been working as an administrator with this age group for over 20 years and is excited to join Pingry, having been struck “by the commitment of the Middle School faculty to educating middle schoolers… They are both serious and joyful about their work.”
One of the most eagerly awaited assemblies of the year is Pingry’s annual Dr. Robert H. LeBow ’58 Memorial Oratorical Competition, when six Upper School students—sophomores and juniors—speak for four-and-a-half to six-and-a-half minutes on a topic of their choosing. This year, the audience listened to speeches by Delaney Swain ’24, Sebastian Salvatore ’24, Ella Wunderlich ’25, Sriya Tallapragada ’25, Alex Wong ’25, and Ananya Sanyal ’24.
Upper School Latin Teacher Judy Lebowitz organized the competition; the faculty and student judges named Sriya the winner (“It’s Time to Be Real—Really”) and Alex the runner-up (“Perfection in Imperfection—the Parable of ChatGPT”).
The competition was funded in 2005 through the generosity of the Class of 1958, led by the late William Hetfield, in memory of their classmate. Dr. LeBow was an accomplished public speaker, addressing audiences worldwide about the need for health care reform. While working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Dr. LeBow and his wife Gail lived in numerous developing countries and provided medical services to underserved populations. Dr. LeBow is the author of Health Care Meltdown: Confronting the Myths and Fixing Our Failing System, a book drawn from his public speaking engagements.
Dr. LeBow’s classmate, Dr. James Smith ’58, who has attended this assembly for years and is always impressed by the delivery of the speeches, described Dr. LeBow as “always likeable, always unpretentious.” He said that something “central” in Dr. LeBow’s values led Dr. LeBow to use his skills to help those who were most in need (instead of, for example, opening a private medical practice), and health care became his passion . . . “increasing medical care for everyone.”
Watch the speeches
Delaney Swain ’24 (“Breaking Down the Stigma, One Word at a Time”) urged the audience to break down the stigma of talking about mental health by not misusing medical terms in everyday speech—not defining people by their illnesses. For example, talk about a person having a condition, instead of using the condition as an adjective. “Make the active choice to change our language,” she said.
Sebastian Salvatore ’24 (“Reading Between the Lines of Scriptures”) described the importance of religion and spirituality in his life, saying that “it is simply impossible to imagine a world without religion.” He suggested that people consider the possibility of "a higher power" and take the “best insights from all major religions and incorporate them into your lives the way you see fit.”
Ella Wunderlich ’25 (“Tiny Little Rebellions”), observed that people have a natural opposition to discomfort and wonders why. She believes it is partly caused by how leaders “tend to educate others on serious issues,” and she argued in favor of discussions on complex topics rather than presentations or lectures. “Rather than simply spotlighting the negative facts of a situation, which leaves people feeling powerless and, as a result, careless, we, as advocates, can guide others toward a greater understanding of the gravity of a situation.”
Sriya Tallapragada ’25 (“It’s Time to Be Real—Really”) was inspired by BeReal, an app that lets people share authentic selfies at certain times each day. This concept led to her broader observation that, in general, people want to show their best selves and hide their flaws. “Rejection, failure, and flaws may be uncomfortable to talk about, but they’re inevitable, and hiding them from others will only mean more unnecessary curating in our lives.”
Alex Wong ’25 (“Perfection in Imperfection—the Parable of ChatGPT”) opened his speech with text written by a bot—ChatGPT. He posed the question, what is the cost of technology creating convenience in our lives? Can technology be created that will replace us? Alex argued, “I’m grateful for all the times I’ve screwed up . . . I’m human—we all are . . . it’s why ChatGPT will never be able to replace us.”
Ananya Sanyal ’24 (“We’re Cancelled—What Now?”) contemplated the defining features of Generation Z, one of which is “cancel culture.” She then asked, “What specifically constitutes a person being cancelled, and why?” Her verdict: “As a collective whole, we’re cancelled—what now?” Ananya believes change is needed . . . “We have to break down social expectations . . . We choose to correct, rather than condemn.”
Front row: Upper School Latin Teacher Judy Lebowitz, Ananya Sanyal ’24, Delaney Swain ’24, and Sriya Tallapragada ’25.
Back row: Alex Wong ’25, Sebastian Salvatore ’24, Ella Wunderlich ’25, and Dr. James Smith ’58.
Contact: Greg Waxberg ’96, Communications Writer, Editor of The Pingry Review