SHERMAN, TX – Over 300 excited and enthusiastic high school students from all over Texas arrived at Austin College Thursday afternoon. Most had painted faces and special tee-shirts, even signs and flags representing the nine cities they came from. So with all of the cheering and anticipation, it was hard to believe it was all for a speech and debate competition.
Austin College has hosted the National Hispanic Institute’s Great Debate for over 20 years. The competition brings together young Latino teens to learn and debate some of the biggest social and political issues facing our country today. NHI’s goal is help these high school students become community leaders as they move on to college and their careers.
"[We are] introducing them to their verbal skills, intellectual skills, their abilities to analyze things and their abilities to strategize, and to put forth ideas of relevance to the modern U.S. Latino community,” said Ernesto Nieto, President and founder of the NHI.
Most of the students are between 14 and 15 years old; freshman are the debaters and older students are their councilors. For Juan Antonia, a freshman from Brownsville, it's all about reaching his future goals.
"I'm interested in studying law so I thought it might be a good experience for me to join,” said Antonia.
For Nieto, this year's debate is more important than ever given the recent protests from Arizona laws targeting Hispanics and the violence on the Texas - Mexico border.
"What's really sad with what's going on, we don't do that here, we don't teach hatred, we don't teach separatism. We're Americans, we're here to support our nation,” he said.
It's those controversies Nieto and the NHI are working to change, student by student. And both the leaders and volunteers say the lessons learned and friendships made at the Great Debate last well beyond the competition, and on into a lifetime.
"They're enthusiastic about us being successful Latinos, I mean it makes me feel proud of who I am and what I can do,” said Antonia.
"These are the kinds of young people that I think are going to change the world,” said Nieto.
In all, nine cities from all over Texas are participating in this year’s Great Debate. Austin College sponsors the entire event, including housing, food and facilities. The debates start Friday morning and last until Saturday night. The winners will move on the national competition.