I grew up in northeast El Paso, Texas in a working class and predominantly Latino community. During my sophomore year of high school, my English teacher told me I was close to getting an A in his class. I wasn’t a super serious student, perhaps slightly above average. He told me that if I could find a debate partner, then I would earn extra credit and get an A in the class.
I agreed to do it and found a friend who was in a similar situation. We went and lost every single round. But the experience lit a spark where we were instantly hooked on the competitive aspect of it. Sure, we were angry about losing, but boy did we admire the people who were good. We especially liked the mental gymnastics.
Debating was almost like teaching ourselves how to think, how to be logical, and how to prepare. For the next few years, my partner and I developed a friendship and ended up being the best team in El Paso. The experience also exposed me to people throughout the state of Texas and to people coming from different backgrounds.
I was debating students from wealthy areas, and there was a realization that no matter how good we were, no matter how hard we worked, we couldn’t compete with the resources of those kids. Their social and academic environment created a foundation that was stronger than what we were experiencing. It was eye opening for me, this idea that different experiences track people to different outcomes.
This exposure created opportunities, and I made friends with a lot of these people. The friends I made from wealthier schools were partly our coaches. They helped push us and elevated our game. It opened me up to what their lives were like as students, and how their experiences created so many more opportunities. Their social networks were different and wealthier. It was striking how important all of that was. In El Paso, a surprising number of schools didn’t even have debate teams.
Through debate, I took all that I learned from the coaching and researching to college with me. Although I didn’t debate in college, the academic preparation I had for college was largely a function of the work I put into debate. I felt insecure about whether I belonged when I started college. So I treated everything like debate. Looking at it through that lens, it worked for me. I got good grades and that gave me confidence. Suddenly, I realized: wait a minute; I do belong here. I do have a high functioning skill set. I was a very good college student.
I studied philosophy and government, and eventually I realized that I was happiest at debate tournaments. I loved the logical thinking and the advocacy. I realized being a lawyer was going to be the closest to debating, to that crescendo of advocacy. I went to the University of Chicago law school. My first year I was insecure all over again, and felt ill-prepared. There were students from Yale and Harvard. A lot of them came from affluent backgrounds. It was obviously intimidating.
As I grew into it, I had the same realization. The core skills, that work ethic, the knowing how to learn, how to think, and how to be logical applied in exactly the same way it did in college. I was a good law student as well. I joined law review, clerked for a federal judge and joined a big law firm.
Now I’m at Google, and I love what I do. What I love about it is what I loved from debate: the process of preparing, thinking about big problems, seeing competing sides of a problem, and advocating for something. While it can be stressful at times, I love coming to work every day because I get to be around smart, engaged people all of the time.
SVUDL is a chance to create the path that (by pure luck) worked for me, for the next generation. I am actually seeding the next person who is like me. The kids still have to do the work. They still have to have a drive. It helps for them to have a joy for competition.
It’s an honor to be able to contribute to something like SVUDL.
How do you believe debate can impact someone over the course of a lifetime?
One of the most important things a young person can figure out is how to learn and how to get through something that’s hard, like college. It’s a process: conquering the SATs or maybe also the actual transition to college.
I was working to help pay for college and put a lot of pressure on myself. It was really hard for me the first couple of years to try to balance having fun with my work ethic. I found that pushing through and getting results gave me confidence.
Learning how to get through something challenging builds self-belief. Not everyone feels that they belong and that they can handle this; it really holds people back if they don’t believe in themselves.
Why is your firm/company a champion of SVUDL and its upcoming “Words to the Wise” 5th Anniversary event?
It’s mostly a myth that people are naturally very good at things. Nobody becomes really good at anything without work. Young people need to understand the relationship between the work that they put in and the outcome. You have to develop a work ethic.
This concept of the work ethic, the connection between the time and effort you put in and the outcome, seems obvious. But honestly to experience and see it first hand is different than to say it. For kids who put in the time and see the results, it’s very important.
All that said, work ethic must be combined with opportunity, and sadly that is too often missing for underrepresented communities. At Google, diversity and inclusion is a significant and fundamental part of our company DNA. I work in the legal department, and public policy is part of our organization. We make decisions that impact people all over the world. Sometimes we are operating in a gray area.
We have to make decisions that incorporate different parts of view. It is super important to have a diverse range of experiences, different point of views, and to come from different backgrounds.
You can’t only hire people who come from a particular experience, place, or country.
It’s simply not good for long-term effective decision-making.
Why do you hope other companies, law firms and even individuals will support the event?
They should support for the same reasons that Google does. Lawyers have a particularly strong civic responsibility to cultivate the type of legal community for the next generation that is diverse, creates opportunities for everyone, and is thoughtful about how law and society impacts everyone.
Why is it important for these students to see themselves in professional careers?
I don’t meet many folks from El Paso here. I’m a white male. So while often people in my field may look like me on the surface, I don’t feel like they are coming from the same background.
As a young person, I knew there weren’t many people coming from North East El Paso becoming “fancy” lawyers. When you don’t see people like you in these roles that you may aspire to, you often hold yourself back because you lack confidence.
It’s hard enough anyway to have confidence when you are young. But it’s particularly hard when you don’t see people like you doing what you want to do.
It’s a little cliché but it’s never going to happen that you are going to end up where you want to if you don’t go for it; if you don’t try. I don’t want to see young people be their own roadblock. If they are willing to put in the work, they should believe that they can be the best.
These young people need to know it’s something they can do, that they will have the support, and they will be the best.