Carmel Valley student wins Optimist International Oratorical Contest

By Kristina Houck

As a young boy, Hanrui Zhang was shy. Now a sophomore at Torrey Pines High School, Hanrui is the recent winner of the Optimist International Oratorical Contest at the California-South District level.

“It’s a really big accomplishment,” said 16-year-old Hanrui, who was sponsored by the Del Mar-Solana Beach Optimist Club. “It shows my hard work can pay off.”

At 13 years old, Hanrui enrolled at San Diego-based Academy for Public Speaking to sharpen his speaking skills. With new confidence and skills, Hanrui gave a speech during his eighth-grade promotion ceremony at Carmel Valley Middle School the following year.

Recognizing his talent, Hanrui’s teacher and speech coach, Kathleen Petrone, encouraged him to participate in the Optimist International contest for the past four years. On his fourth try, he won the coveted district title, a plaque and a $2,500 scholarship.

“I just thought [his winning speech] was outstanding,” said John R. Murphy, a Point Loma-based speech and presentation coach who has emceed the contest for the past three years. “I do a lot of work with at-risk kids. To be able to use Hanrui as an example, I’ve actually got some of my kids to enter the oratorical contest. He’s been an inspiration to them.”

At school, Hanrui has used his skills as a member on the speech and debate team. In addition, he plays the cello in Torrey Pines’ advanced orchestra and serves as a staff writer on the school’s student newspaper.

“For bringing many people information as a journalist, by selecting arguments as a debater that inspires the audience to change themselves and others, and, by communicating intellectually and spiritually through a group of people as a musician, my passions can change the world,” said Hanrui in his winning speech, which he presented again during the Del Mar-Solana Beach Optimist Club’s May 21 dinner meeting.

“Always remember that you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars and change the world. The funny thing is, to change the world, it really is just up to us and our passions.”

First conducted in 1928, the Optimist International Oratorical Contest gives students under the age of 19 the opportunity to build their speaking skills and share their opinions.

Nearly 2,000 clubs participate in the program each year. Funded by the Optimist International Foundations, more than $150,000 in college scholarships is awarded annually through the program.

“It’s such a great way to get what I want to say out there to people in the world, regardless of their age,” said Hanrui, who is also a new member of the Junior Optimist Octagon International Club at Torrey Pines. “The ability for my words to have such a profound impact on someone is amazing. I just want to keep doing that and hopefully inspire more people as I go.”

For more information about the Del Mar-Solana Beach Optimist Club, visit