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Angel Ornelas 1 scaled

Alumni Perspective: Angel Ornelas

Always Remember the (Debate) Basics

August 4, 2020 – Personal Essay

Angel Ornelas
Alum, Dallas Urban Debate Alliance 
Claremont McKenna College

Access to higher education has always been difficult for low-income, first-generation students. Economic and social structures constantly intervene in these students’ ability to craft strong application materials. My time debating in the Dallas Urban Debate Alliance (DUDA) gave me the tools necessary to combat the very structures that posed major challenges to my college education.

Starting in the 8th grade, I participated in DUDA’s middle school tournaments, learning the basic rules and culture of policy debate. In these early years, I was grateful to have had the guidance of a very dedicated Theater/Dramatic Arts instructor, Karen Graves, who encouraged me to finish tournaments despite my losses. Moreover, I had the help of my dear friends Jordan Story and Catherine Patillo whose strength and perseverance inspired me to continue participating in policy debate in high school.

Throughout my freshman year of high school at Townview’s School of Science Engineering Magnet (SEM), I was overwhelmed with my newfound academic and familial responsibilities. At the same time, the policy debate program at Townview was virtually nonexistent and I was worried that I would no longer get the chance to engage in meaningful policy discussions. However, my sophomore year, my pleas for help were answered when Mary Gregg joined SEM’s mathematics department. As a debate coach, Mary’s guidance, mentorship, and unconditional support took my debate career to the next level, ultimately allowing me to hone my communication and research skills. Throughout the rest of my high school career, I applied the lessons learned in policy debate to my coursework and discovered my passion for the humanities along the way.

I committed to pursuing a liberal arts education in college, and my personal statements for the CommonApplication and ApplyTexas forms were heavily influenced by my experiences debating in DUDA. Once I submitted those application materials and joined thousands of students awaiting admissions decisions, I was constantly worried that my overwhelming references to policy debate throughout my application would work against me. I came to find out months later that I was wrong to worry, since I was admitted to my top choice school: Claremont McKenna College.

I was overjoyed and honored at the opportunity to attend a liberal arts college in Southern California and I began my undergraduate career eager to learn and cultivate friendships. Freshman year of college, however, proved to be challenging in a number of ways. Imposter syndrome began to settle in, preventing me from taking full advantage of relationships with professors and peers. Additionally, balancing work-study responsibilities with my academic coursework became burdensome on my mental health. I began to feel as though I did not belong at an institution marked by elite spaces and filled with affluent students who seemed to have immense amounts of social capital. I felt like I was in a vast ocean of rich kids who knew what they wanted to do and how to do things.

Sophomore year, I finally found my footing and built a community with students who shared my experiences and identities. Through advocacy, participation in affinity groups, and my involvement in mentorship programs, I drew on my experiences from policy debate. I utilized my speaking and research skills to cultivate lifelong friendships and develop a strong network that I will continue to rely on long after my undergraduate career.

Now as a rising senior, I look back on the challenges that my freshman year posed and the skills that policy debate gave me to navigate higher education in general. From cultivating my already extroverted personality to helping me to develop the excellent communication skills necessary to converse with professors and other students, I will forever be grateful for the lessons that policy debate taught me.

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