Pro Se: Speech & Debate Mentoring Program for Justice-Impacted Youth


Pro Se Speech & Debate is an engaged learning program for Cornell undergraduate students who provide peer mentoring and education to justice-impacted youth, ages 14–17, in Central New York. The students, who are also members of organizations like the Cornell Undergraduate Mock Trial Association and the ILR School Speech and Debate program, design the curriculum to support youth learning and empowerment by building skills around speech, debate, and self-advocacy. 

For youth participants, Pro Se includes three known best practices: (a) one-on-one peer mentoring; (b) supplemental educational programming outside alternative or home school settings; and (c) rebuilding social networks and social/career capital.

The two-way service-learning opportunities offered by Pro Se benefit both the youth participants and the future legal professionals from Cornell, who can drive juvenile justice innovation and reform from within.

In its pilot year, during the 2021–2022 academic year, 12 youth participated in programming led by seven Cornell students who provided mentorship as “Speech and Debate Coaches.” Data from the pilot program supports that over 80% of participants have either made progress in their individual goals or successfully graduated from the program. In 2022–23, 10 additional youth have participated, with six Cornell student mentors. 

Project Activities

  • Each youth participant receives three months of virtual one-on-one and group mentoring and coaching in speech, debate, and self-advocacy.
  • Youth participants who finish the program receive a certificate of completion in “Speech & Debate” from Cornell, and opportunities for structured campus visits, prizes, and other incentives. These provide them with additional cultural capital for transitioning into postsecondary education and/or employment.
  • A community of practice among the Speech & Debate Coaches evaluates the pilot program and curriculum and discusses workshop improvements.

Contact Information

Matthew Saleh

Funding Agencies

The Community Foundation of Herkimer & Oneida Counties, M&T Bank/Partners Trust Bank Charitable Fund (pilot program), Engaged Cornell (seed grant)

Principal Investigator

Matthew Saleh (PI), LaWanda Cook and Timothy McNutt (Co-PIs), Katie Brendli Brown (Key Staff)

Collaborating Partners

Central New York Health Home Network, Restorative Integrated Youth Services (RIYS) Diversion Program