Always fascinated with making the world a better place, Odessa High School senior Matthew Thompson has achieved the ambition of qualifying for the UIL Congress contest.

The competition is set for Jan. 11 and the finals are Jan. 12 in Austin.

Thompson has been in speech and debate since the second semester of his freshman year in high school.

This is the first time he’s made the Congress, an individual contest in a large group setting. The University Interscholastic League website said it models the legislative process of democracy, specifically, the United States Congress.

“It’s always been an aspiration,” Thompson said.

Asked how he felt when he found out he qualified, Thompson said he felt “a blanket of astonishment come over me.”

“I knew that’s what I’d wanted for three years and as soon as I heard my name, it was a surprise. But it also felt like the results paid off from years of hard work and improvement,” he said.

Two students from Legacy High School in Midland also qualified, he said.

“I think that speech and debate gives students, especially like me that are excited about implementing their view for how to change the world for better. And I think that debate matched my interest,” Thompson said.

From debating in the classroom, Thompson said he realized ideas can only stretch so far.

“… When you’re debating in the classroom, or in front of a group of students, these ideas that are really transformative, that have the ability to change the world for better, they can only stretch so far, and in how they can be implemented in the real world. But I think that I’ve come to reconcile with the fact that … when we do debate these ideas, especially with a group of students that have their mindset (on) changing the world, it’s inspiring for the future, and implementing those ideas that we debate in the classroom,” he added.

As for what he’s going to do for a career, Thompson said he’s ambivalent.

“I know that lawyers uphold the law and judges interpret the law. But I wanted to change the law. And I thought about politics, and politicians especially come under the influence that may inhibit their ability to effect change. But I think I bring a new mindset and I’m conscious of those factors. Those would allow me to effect the change that I want to see, whether it be in criminal justice, or voting rights reform,” Thompson said.

In the Congress room, he said, they debated a resolution to change the paradigm of American justice from retribution to rehabilitation.

“… I feel like rehabilitation is important because it ensures that the administration of justice can be carried out and also preserve the dignity of each person that goes through it,” he said.

Debate, he said, refines the skill of looking for the truth in how you present an argument and hearing multiple perspectives on an issue.

Thompson recently received the resolutions that are in bills that he would debate at the state level.

Odessa High School debate student Matthew Thompson poses for a photo Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, at the OHS Performing Arts Center. (Eli Hartman|Odessa American)

“I’ve already begun collecting research and my peers in debate are also helping me. And together, we’re collaborating on building cases together and compiling information and evidence,” Thompson said.

He added that debate covers a wide range of issues from education and public health to matters in people’s personal lives.

“… It makes you more of an informed person that lives in an inherently political society,” Thompson said.

He added that he thinks the most important skill you can learn from debate is compassion.

“… A lot of people today do not care, or neglect, the other side of an issue because they perceive theirs as superior and the other argument as inferior. I think that debate instills you with that sort of compassion to look outside of your own interest and look at other people’s background and why they formulate those arguments and why they carry those positions,” he said.

Thompson said there is still an element of respect when you disagree with someone’s position.

He added that debate helps you become a more inclusive thinker.

Thompson said he’s always nervous before a competition.

“… But I’ve come to the realization that I’m with people that are also passionate about their vision for changing the world and I think that sort of gives me the confidence going into a debate to share my views also,” he added.

He said he’s seen an improvement in how he speaks publicly and shares his ideas.

OHS Speech and Debate Coach Aaron Cox said he was not surprised at all that Thompson qualified for state.

“… Ever since he first walked in my classroom, the kid’s impressed me. He’s always such a hard worker, incredibly gifted at critically thinking. He can see solutions to problems for five miles away,” Cox said.

“If an answer fails him, Thompson doesn’t give up. I wouldn’t answer fell soon. He doesn’t give up.”

“He stops and quickly rethinks another way around the issue to solve it,” Cox said.

He added that he thinks Thompson would make an outstanding politician.

“… He doesn’t think about himself, but he puts people in front of him all the time. He’s always trying to think why does this work this way” and he’ll find a better way to tackle the matter, Cox said.

“He’s all about people,” he added.

Cox has had a state qualifier nearly every year. He said he tells them that he doesn’t want to lose to Legacy, which was previously Lee High School.

However, he added, his students work hard.

“And I’ve just been gifted with very gifted kids,” Cox said.

He added that he thinks Thompson has a good shot to win at state.

“… He’s a good kid, so I don’t have any doubt that we’re making it to the finals. We will make it this year because he’s a hard worker. He’s got an understanding of things, a better understanding than most adults even close to his age in the 20s and early 30s I don’t think have the grasp on critical thinking like he does,” Cox said.