Each year following Commencement, the Austin College campus gets pretty quiet for a few weeks. The campus grounds and buildings are being readied for summer conferences and the administrative work of the College continues, but other than staff moving from building to building in their daily functions, campus activity is very low key. No classes. Few visitors. Quiet.
That all changes in early June when members of the National Hispanic Institute arrive to compete in the three-day Texas Great Debate. Buses arrive from all over Texas and 350 enthusiastic high school students roar onto the campus. By the time President Marjorie Hass greets them at their late afternoon welcome session, the student groups—with faces painted, noise makers at top pitch, banners and signs waving, and tee shirts proudly announcing their delegations— have worked themselves into a spirited frenzy.
The next day, things look totally different. Young men and women in professional suits are all business, if a little nervous. “The Great Debate program allows students to practice the communications skills needed for success, through debating issues of particular import to Latinos in the United States today,” said NHI founder and president Dr. Ernesto Nieto. “Since we see the participating students as potential leaders in the U.S. Latino community, our idea of success goes beyond just doing well in college and in professional careers. This program allows students to realize their potential, to understand why they’re needed in the Latino community, and to begin fulfilling their promise as leaders.”
Nieto also noted that this program is unique among NHI’s Great Debate programs, as students in the Texas Great Debate form teams aligned by major cities and regions of the state and practice with those teammates in the weeks and even months leading up to the event. “The programs build in each student a renewed desire to make history as leaders in their families and in their communities,” he said.
Nieto and his wife, Gloria de Leon, co-founded the non-profit organization in 1979 in Austin, Texas, as a way to encourage young Latino students to enhance their leadership abilities and actively participate in the Latino community. The co-founders were honored during Austin College’s 2011 Commencement ceremony, with honorary doctoral degrees presented to each.