Hundreds of Latino high schoolers from across the state of Texas converged at Austin College this week to take part in the National Hispanic Institutes’ annual Great Debate tournament.

The three-day competition began on Thursday and welcomed roughly 300 high school students to stay on AC’s campus. Freshman students competed against one another across multiple categories, while upper classmen served as coaches and advisers. Tournament Director Daniel Gonzalez said the eight teams competing in this year’s debate were all virtually full and tackled the central theme of social labels and how they influence the Latino community.

“It’s really exciting,” Gonzalez said. “You can feel the competition in the room. I feel like, this year, we have teams that are really well prepared and very evenly matched.”

NHI Assistant Project Administrator Jorge Lee said the debate is an opportunity for young Latinos to learn valuable public speaking, research, teamwork and leadership skills. Lee said those skills allow teams to do well, but added that the ultimate pay off is seeing the experience empower students.

“You can have a kid who starts off not saying a word, not engaging in the discussion at all, to moving to the front, posing questions and lifting their team up,” Lee said. “That’s my favorite part about the program. It works. It brings students out of their shells. It makes them more confident, more eloquent and more voluble speakers.”

Andrea Rodriguez, a sophomore at St. Dominic Savio Catholic High School in Austin, said her team traveled from the capital city to Sherman Thursday and arrived just in time for the familiar pre-tournament rundown and to hear all the chants of their competitors.

“It was pretty adventurous,” Rodriguez said of the trip. “Our bus broke down actually, like 30 minutes away from Sherman. So we had to get a new one, but it all worked out in the end and we made it in time.”

Rodriguez said she and her teammates began to prepare for the competition in March by holding weekly workshops and practice sessions.

“The first few meetings, we just worked on the whole team’s speaking skills,” Rodriguez said. “Then, we broke into categories, like cross examination, mock trial, oratory and extemporaneous speaking.”

Rodriguez said the U.S. Latino community finds itself at the heart of many important issues, but she was especially hopeful her fellow students would use the skills they developed through the Great Debate and the NHI program to improve circumstances in other Latino nations.

“The first thing that comes to mind are all of the natural disasters that are happening,” Rodriquez said. “In Guatemala, a volcano just erupted. In Puerto Rico, they had Hurricane Maria and then the earthquakes in Mexico. Really, I feel like we need to unite and offer as much help as we can to those communities.”

The high school sophomore said she hoped the tournament would empower her fellow students to do great things and that the world would only see the Latino community’s influence grow as its young people do too.

“We’re really strong and we’re equal like everybody else,” Rodriguez said.