Debate league reaches out to Houston’s underprivileged students

385x218Houston Chronicle

When she joined her high school debate team, college didn’t seem like an option to Maria Alfaro.

She came from a single-parent home, had a recently expired visa and was disappointed by what she’d seen of the “American dream.”

But when her Costa Rican mother told her, “You have to keep going,” and her debate coach encouraged her to apply for scholarships at the University of Houston, she gave it a try.

“I was doing things I never thought I’d be able to do, learning things I had never thought of, developing communication skills I had never had,” said Alfaro, 21. “It’s all because of the Houston Urban Debate League.”

The Westbury High graduate, who was on the league’s first debate team in 2008, returned Saturday to volunteer as a judge at the nonprofit’s City Championships Eliminations Rounds, held at the federal courthouse downtown.

Promoting excellence

Some 120 students from nearly 30 Houston high schools participated in the policy debate held by the league, which hopes to develop leaders and promote academic excellence in underprivileged schools. “The overall goal is for students to learn skills that will help them graduate successfully, be successful in college and, over time, grow to be well-rounded members of the community,” said HUDL President and CEO Ronald Bankston.

The debate league works with low-income schools to give students a voice and provide opportunities that might not be available otherwise.

“It really means a lot to these kids to have adults listen and hear what they have to say,” Bankston said. “It’s rewarding to the listeners as well.”

Higher graduation rate

Bankston said HUDL’s on-time graduation rate among participants is 99.6 percent, well above the Houston ISD‘s rate. More than 75 percent of debate students go on to college.

Winners of the championship receive scholarships and an opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., to compete in a national tournament.

Without hesitation, Alfaro credits the league with changing her life. She is about to graduate summa cum laude from UH, with degrees in political science and Spanish. She is a senator of the Student Government Association and plans to study immigration reform at law school.

“I feel like I owe them something. I feel like I should be doing good in school,” Alfaro said. “I can’t give them anything, but I can show them with my actions how grateful I am.”