Hundreds of Latino high school students hailing from across the Lone Star state gathered at Austin College this week to compete in the National Hispanic Institute’s annual Great Debate tournament.


The three-day event began Thursday and welcomed more than 300 students to stay on AC’s campus. Freshman students competed against one another across multiple categories, while upperclassmen served as coaches and advisers.


This is the school’s 30th year to host the tournament and governance was the theme.


“A lot of it is kids figuring out that governance doesn’t necessarily equate to government,” NHI board member George Rodriguez said. “It could be self-governance at home, policy making as a CEO, or serving as an educator and running a classroom. There are all kids of levels and different forms of governance and it speaks to how its such a big part of daily life.”


Rodriguez said while governance takes a variety of forms, many of the participating students seemed to be inspired by the recent successful runs of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Xochitl Torres Small for United States Congress.


“We’ve got folks who were elected to congress this year who were former members of the National Hispanic Institutes who started out in our program years ago as 15-year-old kids,” Rodriguez said. “So now that they’ve seen that, these kids are really starting to feel like they can make it there too.”


TAG Magnet School Senior Sarah Sandoval said she was happy to serve as a coach this year and help her fellow Dallas region chapter members prepare for the four competition categories, including mock trial, extemporaneous speaking, oratory and cross examination.


“There’s a lot of planning and making sure that the different schools and chapter members came through and executed the work, which there’s plenty of,” Sandoval said. “We focused on being structured and organized and we put in a lot of time.”


Sandoval said as former competitor and now as team leader, the Great Debate has given her valuable experience and self confidence.


“It gives you your first glimpse of what it’s going to be like going out into the real world,” Sandoval said. “And it helps you learn how to clearly communicate, share and defend your ideas, and accurately represent yourself and other individuals.”


While Sandoval said all the students enjoy the “intellectual friction” with their competitors and have their own unique backgrounds, she felt they were far more united than divided.


“At the end of the day, we’re all NHI,” she said. “We’re all Texans. We’re all Latinos and we’re here as a family and a part of the community. We’re just ready to see what happens next for us and what we’ll do in the future.”


Drew Smith is a reporter for the Herald Democrat. Contact him at asmith@heralddemocrat.com