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Atlanta Students Win Big at Harvard Debate Competition, Making History

A group of 25 Atlanta students known as “Atlanta’s Great Debaters” made history this past weekend after bringing home a coveted championship from a residency program hosted by Harvard University’s Debate Council.

Every year, the council hosts a single-elimination tournament that allows students to apply their acquired knowledge and skills in competition, local station 11Alive reported. Atlanta’s young debaters were divided into various teams that went head to head with scholars from across the world, including Russia, Europe and Asia.

The students were just 25 of 400 others from around the globe who came to compete on Harvard University’s campus. What made them unique, however, is that they were chosen as part of the new Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project (HDCDC) class, many of them starting out as inexperienced debaters. The students hailed from 16 metro-Atlanta schools.

” … Being a young, middle class, Black, public school student from the South created a stigma that automatically set me back in comparison to the competition — most of who were international students or from preparatory schools in the Northeast,” Grady High School student Jordan Thomas told the station.

“I was determined to represent my city and my story. I wanted people to see where I came from and how I could keep up with them,” he continued.

Throughout the tough competition, 10 of the 12 Atlanta teams advanced to the octo-finals, while six moved on to the quarterfinals. Two teams also competed in the semi-final round. Thomas was among them and went on to snag the first-place victory for the entire single-elimination tournament.

“To bring the championship back to Atlanta was the most satisfying feeling, and to walk onto the campus of one of the most elite universities in the world and meet personal and council goals, brings a unique and new satisfaction that I’ve never experienced,” he said.

Thomas and his fellow debaters were thoroughly groomed for the competition, undergoing a 10-hour daily academic regimen while learning from highly seasoned debate professors and instructors, according to 11Alive. Much of the rigorous curricula focused on analysis, research, argumentation and political science.

Atlanta’s Great Debaters may have never made it to Harvard had it not been for Brandon Fleming, a Harvard University Assistant Debate Coach, who noticed the lack of Black representation at the college’s summer program in recent years. So, he launched the Atlanta-based diversity project as a program intended to recruit, train, and send students of color to Harvard on a full scholarship.

“I spend my summers teaching at Harvard, which wanted a more diverse program,” Fleming told Black Enterprise earlier this year. So I designed this diversity pipeline program and Harvard approved it.”

The 25 students, which made up the inaugural cohort of HDCDP scholars, were awarded  $10,500 in scholarship money from the Art Institute of Atlanta to participate in Harvard’s prestigious program. Thomas described Fleming’s diversity project as an “… incubator of intellect and a cultivator of brilliance.”

“You can find nothing but support in this family in everything that you do,” he said of  HDCDP. “This family brings people together. No matter which school we attended or socioeconomic status, we all fall under the same umbrella and accomplished our goal together.”

The application for next year’s cohort to train at Harvard is scheduled to open Aug. 15.

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