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Northeast Great Debate debuts at new home, Saint Francis University, with international flavor

2022 northeast great debate
Posted: August 17, 2022 at 8:38 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

The Northeast Great Debate, a National Hispanic Institute staple, debuted at a new home in 2022. Saint Francis University hosted a select group of more than 30 students, converging on the Pennsylvania town of Loretto from July 19-24 to take the first steps on their NHI journeys. 

The partnership with the National Hispanic Institute and Saint Francis University is a natural fit. Given the university’s commitment to its mission and desire to serve students, the beautiful Loretto, Pennsylvania, campus provided an ideal space. The Northeast Great Debate provided full access to the comprehensive campus, allowing participating students an opportunity to immerse in a college-like learning experience. 

How it began

The first Northeast Great Debate took place in 2003 at Villanova University. The program was comprised of a cohort of students from across the commonwealth, members of Pennsylvania Migrant Education and a group of students from the School District of Philadelphia. Early community investors like the late Dr. Manuel Recio, former State Director of PA Migrant Education; Steve Merritt, Vice President, Villanova University; Thomas Butler, Philadelphia College Roundtable; and Carmen Sol Cotto, School District of Philadelphia. 

By the second year, new communities throughout Pennsylvania, neighboring schools in New Jersey such as LEAP Academy, joined the cohort, and in less than ten years the program evolved to feature young scholars from across the Northeast, from Boston to Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, and leaders from Latin America (particularly Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Panama). The program was disrupted due to the pandemic but even during the “digital era”, members from these communities continued their development through the GDx experience.

“It was so humbling to be back in Pennsylvania, back in the green spaces this state is known for,” said NHI senior vice president Julio Cotto. “This was where one of my personal leadership journeys took root. At the 1997 LDZ, I told Ernie, Gloria, and NHI that I would be back and I wanted to make sure more kids from my part of the world got to join NHI. When I graduated from college, I remember getting on a plane with Ernie and Gloria coming out to venture into the unknown and seek the opportunity. By the fall of 2002, Chris Nieto and I were visiting schools and making connections to launch our first NHI experience east of the Mississippi River. St. Francis not only shared their amazing space and facilities with us but they give us the opportunity to carve out another decade of leadership development. Although I am an Eastern PA boy myself, I also enjoy the fact that St. Francis gives us the chance to venture towards Pittsburgh, Erie, one of our first NHI communities actually, and Ohio!”

Embracing the diversity

Steven Hernandez, educational director for the program, noted that the bilingual program they ran out of necessity was extremely diverse. Students from the Dominican Republic and Guatemala, and even a student from Canada, contributed to the event’s international flavor and changed its tenor from other U.S.-based Great Debate events. 

“What we learned throughout the week was just exactly how to embrace that diversity in communication, where we couldn’t use traditional examples especially with our students in Guatemala,” he observed. “We’re going to give an example on civil rights and social advocacy and reform in an oratory setting, and a lot of people go straight to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which means absolutely nothing to the students who aren’t from the United States.” 

“So how do we embrace the differences in culture in order to reach across and get that understanding of the content that we’re presenting and how to get students comfortable and communicating?” he added. “That was really our challenge for the week.” 

‘They wanted their voices to be heard’

But he also called the event “a nice experiment in how we build relationships” as well as focusing on how to make students more comfortable in communicating. Experiencing a college campus like Saint Francis University also helped instill confidence and courage in participants as they honed their skills. 

“By the end of the week, they were coming up to me, taking the microphone out of my hand every time I offered it to them, Hernandez remarked. “They wanted their voices to be heard … every single student came up to the microphone to talk the last day of the program.” 

“My experience at the NHI Great Debate Program was life changing,” said Aiden Sonero, from All Hallows High School in the Bronx. “I learned so much about myself and grew as a person. I helped my fellow teammates as well as my competitors. I made connections that will last a lifetime. I benefited so much from this experience, and I owe it all to NHI. I learned how to improve my time management. And of course, debating skills. Debate was never something I was ever interested in at first, but this program has made me interested in pursuing debate

opportunities should they present themselves. From the bottom of my heart, I thank NHI for this incredible opportunity.” 

Awards earned at the program include: 


1st Place: Gustavo Bosques, Boston College High School, Boston, Mass.

2nd Place: Ashley Vicioso, Instituto Politécnico Hainamosa, Santo Domingo Este, Dominican Republic

All State: Yuliani Mejias, Alberto Byas, San Pedro de Macorís, Dominican Republic


1st Place: Cedric Urena, Instituto Politécnico Hainamosa, Santo Domingo Este, Dominican Republic

2nd Place: Aiden Sonera, All Hallows High School, Bronx, N.Y.

All State: Ancel de Jesus, Wardlaw Hartridge School, Edison, N.J.


1st Place: Marianna Melendez, Sandy Springs Friends School, Sandy Springs, MD & Edwin Garcia, All Hallows High School, Bronx, N.Y.

2nd Place: Dayi Belen, Colegio Jesus El Maestro, Santo Domingo Este, Dominican Republic

& Jeni Gonzalez Flores, Avon Grove High School, West Grove, Penn. 

All State Leader: Marcos Ramos, The Rivers School, Weston, Mass.

All State Member: Esaias Gonzalez, Rye Country Day School, Rye, N.Y.


  • Michelle Garcia, Tohickon Middle School, Doylestown, Penn.
  • Josue Daigneault, Ecole Paul-Germain-Ostiguy, Saint-Césaire, Québec
  • Alitzel Bacca, Kennett High School, Kennett Square, Penn.
  • Ana Rodriguez, LEAP Academy University Charter School, Camden, N.J.


  • Luis Fernando Herrera, AL-UCE, San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic


  • Ashley Ventura, Liceo Técnico Parroquial Domingo Savio Fe y Alegría, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

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