Students from Atlanta bring home top prizes at Harvard debate competition

People 2 People: June 16, 2018

BOSTON, Mass. — A high school student from Atlanta took home the top prize at a prestigious, international debate competition at Harvard University this past weekend.

Jordan Thomas, a rising senior at Grady High School, took home first place at the annual Harvard Debate Council tournament, where scholars from all over the world come together to debate on social and political issues.

Thomas was one of a group of 25 African-American students from Atlanta who were selected this year to attend the tournament through the inaugural year of the Harvard Diversity Project. The Atlanta-based initiative was created to recruit, train and sponsor minority students to participate in the annual program at the Ivy League university.

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The Atlanta group didn't just participate -- they excelled.

In addition to Thomas' win, two out of the four teams participating made it to the semi-final round -- beating out hundreds of other students.

Channel 2 Action News spoke with the Diversity Project creator Brandon Fleming, a Harvard assistant debate coach and a former teacher at Ron Clark Academy.

"Our kids dominated the competition," Fleming said. "Of our 12 teams, 10 advanced past preliminary rounds."

Fleming said he created the Diversity Project because he said he saw so few African-Americans represented at the competition.

For its first year, the Harvard Diversity Project had more than 150 applicants in Atlanta, out of which 25 were selected. Most of the students -- chosen from 16 high schools across Atlanta -- had little experience with debate.

The teens spent eight months learning public speaking, analysis, critical thinking and debate skills before attending the two-week summer intensive program in Cambridge, Mass. Their tuition, travel and board were fully funded through corporate sponsors including Chick-fil-A, Coca-Cola and the Art Institute of Atlanta.

Thomas, who won the top prize along with another student from Georgia, said he was thrilled to bring first place back to Atlanta.

"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," Thomas said.

Thomas said he was also happy to be able to challenge stereotypes and represent his city.

“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,” Thomas said. “But 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."

Applications for the 2019 Harvard Debate Council open August 15. More than 350 nominations have already been submitted.