Aaron was a standout debater at Morgan Park and coach at Northside College Prep. Having completed a double major at Pomona College, Aaron is now headed to the University of Pennsylvania.
I still pinch myself when I think of where I come from and the things I have been able to achieve. As a kid growing up in the Robert Taylor Projects and later the Jeffrey Manor neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, there were times when I didn’t even think I would be alive let alone finish high school and college. Who knew a room full of weird looking kids speaking 5000 words a minute would change my outlook, my drive and ultimately my future.
Like many kids, I lucked into policy debate. I knew I wasn’t into sports, I needed something to do after school and I loved to argue. At first, I was intimidated. At my first few tournaments, I wasn’t able to read as fast and I couldn’t balance the intensity of the research with my homework and other responsibilities. However, I noticed that things got easier with time. With every tournament I gained a bit more confidence, a few more wins in the wins column, and a host of new friends from all around the city.
I even saw my grades improve as my debate skills seeped into the classroom. Soon I was able to dissect arguments with quickness; I always had an opinion and I was not afraid to challenge anyone including my teachers and coaches. I became a competitor.
After my Sophomore year, a few wins became many. I went from occasionally advancing to the top 8 teams, to almost winning every local tournament I entered, culminating in a city championship title. My partner and I began to get ambitious and many people from around the country that followed our success encouraged us to think bigger and work harder.
With this encouragement we began to travel to national tournaments, often as the only African American team competing. Although we didn’t have many coaches, files, or money like the other schools, we were still successful. By my senior year (2005), my partner and I became the first CDL team to ever qualify for the Tournament of Champions, a tournament at the University of Kentucky that invites the country’s top 60 teams to compete. That year my partner and I were two of the three African American debaters present.
While I find solace in winning trophies, debate has brought me so much more than shiny medals. It opened up an opportunity for me to go to college for free. I was able to use my debate success to impress a panel at the Posse Foundation and receive a full ride to Pomona College, one of the best liberal arts colleges in America.
I found college to be a lot easier than I expected. At first I thought that I would be comparatively under-prepared coming from a public school, however, I found that the critical thinking, research and communication skills I learned from debate put me ahead of the pack in many of my classes. In fact, I was able to double major in African American studies and Sociology and graduate with distinction. While in college, I also coached Walter Payton High School in Chicago, which produced the 2nd and 3rd CDL teams to qualify for the Tournament of Champions during my tenure.
To me, debate was my equalizer. I knew that mastering language, critical thinking, and the ability to formulate an argument would allow me to compete with anyone, whether in debate, the work place or in school, regardless of where I came from, what I looked like, and what resources I had at my display.
As I look up today, that little boy from the projects has made it all the way to the Ivy League studying for his MSW at the University of Pennsylvania. Never let anyone stand in your way and if they try to, just debate them, and see how far it takes you!