The Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project (HDCDP) is an Atlanta-based initiative started in 2017 that would help bring African-American teens to the university’s annual summer residency hosted by the Harvard Debate Council. When the 25 inexperienced teens showed up for the tournament, very little was expected of them. However, Grady High School senior Jordan Thomas won first place in the entire competition and the rest of the Atlanta youth group made history.

The HDCDP was started by Brendon Fleming, an assistant debate coach, at Harvard after he noticed a trend in the lack of Black students participating in the summer program. Fleming spearheaded the initiative as a pipeline that would recruit, train and send students of color to Harvard on a full scholarship. In six months, individual and corporate sponsors helped raise $100,000 in tuition for the students, including Chick-fil-A Foundation, The Coca-Cola Company, UPS, Publix Supermarkets, The Art Institute of Atlanta and MBC Concessions.

Over 150 students from 16 Atlanta high schools applied to be apart of HDCDP. Only 25 of them were selected to head to the Ivy League school to compete against 400 students from across the globe. The single-elimination debate tournament took place on July 14 and the Atlanta students dominated the competition. Ten of the 12 Atlanta teams advanced to the octo-finals, six progressed to the quarter-finals and two continued to the semi-finals.

In a press release, Thomas talked about the stigma placed on him for his class and race. “Being a young, middle class, Black, public school student from the South created a stigma that automatically set me back in the competition, most of who were international students or from preparatory schools in the Northeast,” he 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. 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.”

Although, HDCDP will not open up applications until Aug. 15 for the next group of students to train at the Harvard residency program in the summer of 2019, more than 350 applications have already been received.