Houston Students Prepare for Texas Great Debate
On a beautiful, sunny, and cloudless Sunday afternoon, I enter a classroom in the Cullen College of Engineering at the University of Houston. Here, Latino high school students from across the Houston area are preparing for the 2016 Texas Great Debate at Austin College in Sherman from June 9-12. The Texas Great Debate is an intensive and uber-competitive intellectual Olympics of sorts, where some of the most clever future leaders from across Texas showcase their prowess in communication, critical thinking and understanding of some of the most complex issues and challenges within the U.S. and global Latino communities.
In this University of Houston classroom, ten students are dressed in business attire – young women in pant suits and young men in coats and ties. It’s a bit intimidating at first, but I sneak in quietly. One might think they were interns or young college students or professional politicians engaged in a solemn dialogue about saving mankind. But they’re actually students teaching and learning how to win in the game of extemporaneous speaking. They are engaged in cerebral combat, beginning with questions that got me to think as well—inquiries that stimulated the imagination and stirred their curiosities.
Some sample questions include: “What characteristics make up a Latino leader? Give me a specific leader? What values did these leaders have that made them great?” And then, a much more thought-provoking question: “What will the U.S. Latino community look like in 15 years? Who will our leaders lead in 15 years?”
If you are a member of the Greater Houston Great Debate team, this is how you’re spending your weekends leading up to the Texas Great Debate.
Juan Carranza, a freshman at Challenge Early College High School and a member of the cross-examination team, learned about the National Hispanic Institute from a friend. “I wanted to be a part of NHI because I know it will help me in college. I am learning how to speak my mind, and offer new ideas. That is important in college and if I want to plan and build for customers. Cross-examination is a good fit for me, because I love to ask questions. That’s the fun part,” Carranza said.
He admits he was lucky to get into Challenge Early College and that if he does well, he will take college classes while in high school. He says, “This will be helpful to my parents, because they don’t have a lot of money. I want to study engineering and architecture at the University of Houston or Texas A&M. I love building and planning.”
Jeimy Fuñez, a freshman at Westside High School, also heard about NHI through a friend. “I really like coming here on Sundays to train because the activities are fun. The counselors talk to us. They are friendly and care,” Fuñez said. “I thought mock trial was the best event for me, because I like building a case with witnesses and posing as an attorney. I enjoy working in a group, giving my opinions and structuring a case. In the future, I want to be a veterinarian or doctor,” she said.
Fuñez immigrated to the United States as a child, and lives with her mother and uncle. “We don’t have a lot of money to pay for programs like these, so I am happy that I am able to be part of this. My family thinks NHI is good for me, because it will help me for college. I think it will, too.”
Olixa Muñoz, a freshman at Debakey High School for Health Professions, says she wants to be a doctor and attend Baylor University or the University of Houston. She is competing in extemporaneous speaking.
“I like this category, because I work best on my own. The best thing about extemporaneous speaking is that I get to think deeply about different topics. For example, even though it may not sound like a hard subject, one day our counselors asked us to give a short speech on the topic, ‘Who is the better superhero, Batman or Superman?’ It was hard, especially if you don’t know much about them, and if you want to sound smart.” She proudly states that she was prepared, because she did her research and she thinks she performed well for a practice round.
Muñoz’s parents think NHI is a great organization for her to be part of, because they see her becoming more social. “I am a very shy person, and they think it is helping me to come out of my shell,” Muñoz said. “I also see what NHI has done for others, like our Project Administrator, Carlos Paz. He’s very successful and his experiences inspire me. People like him and my family expect more from me, and I can tell that they believe in me,” said Muñoz.
Eda Garcia, senior counselor for the team from Challenge Early College High School, says she loves being a leader in the Greater Houston NHI program. “What I love about being a leader in the Greater Houston NHI program is that feeling of teaching those who used to be in my place, and seeing how much they grow. It’s rewarding when parents say to me, ‘My child talks more. They are not as shy anymore.’ That makes me feel good,” said Garcia.
A few years ago, she never heard of NHI until she received an invitation to attend a meeting. It was there that she and her family decided to participate. “I was a member of the oratory event at the Texas Great Debate, and I advanced to the ‘Elite 8’. That was exciting for my team!”
After the Great Debate, she admits that her mom made her return as a volunteer with Greater Houston NHI. “Being part of this organization has really given me access to people I would have never met. It has opened my eyes and it has opened many doors for me,” she said. “I am teaching and learning. We learn from each other how to teach and lead others. We motivate each other to be better, because of the event competition. We push each other. We communicate our ideas and plans. That’s a great thing!”
Garcia notes that Elvis Cavazos, one of two current Greater Houston NHI Project Administrators, is always raising the expectations for them, “We are supposed to be and sound like those speakers on TED Talks,” she explained. “They are passionate, knowledgeable and they grab your attention. That is the standard he has set for us, but it is what I think leaders should be like, too.”
Sonia Lopez, graduate from the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, the University of Texas at Austin, and the South Texas College of Law (and the other current Greater Houston NHI Project Administrator) says that the National Hispanic Institute has played a major role in her success. “I am a product of the National Hispanic Institute and H.I.S.D. schools. I am grateful for the partnership between these two institutions, and thrilled to be part of this journey that I know will positively impact so many young people.”
Earlier this year, the Houston Independent School District made a $100,000 commitment to NHI — the largest of any single school district in NHI’s history — to send students to NHI summer programs in 2016 and 2017. Lopez said the financial support was generous and needed.
“I wish I had had that kind of scholarship when I was participating in NHI programs. It would have helped my family, like I see it helping students and their families now. Our families are thankful, because they know without doubt that their sons and daughters can be part of a leadership experience that will change their children, their families and their communities,” Lopez said.
Lopez, an area attorney, has been the Project Administrator of the Greater Houston organization since 2013, and she has seen an increase in student participation in NHI programs from H.I.S.D. schools because of their backing. “Today, I am proud to say that H.I.S.D. students make up about 25 of our 50 member Houston Great Debate team, and I only see it improving. We are taking a full team to the Great Debate this year. This is a morale-booster for our students, and for our community.”
Lopez credits H.I.S.D.’s financial support and her team of parent volunteers and student leaders to their team’s successes. “Our parents and student leaders from across the Houston area, work hard to develop our young leaders.” She says the NHI programs are transformational.
“I hear what parents are saying about their kids – the positive changes they are noticing over time. The look on their faces when they see their children dressed in a professional suit or when they speak confidently in a microphone is a proud moment for all of us, because this is what it’s all about – it’s about leadership and understanding our presence, and our voice, and the positive impact we can make for the city of Houston.”
About the author: Kristina Tusini is a member of the NHI Board of Directors and has been the Education Director of the Texas Great Debate since 2014.