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NBC Nightly News Correspondent Pete Williams delivers keynote address at opening of Phi Rho Pi Forensics Tournament

Pete Williams

Northern Virginia Community College hosted the kick off of the national Phi Rho Pi Forensics Tournament on Monday evening, April 11, in the Fairfax Ballroom of the Sheraton Tysons Corner. Six-hundred energized students from 59 community colleges across the nation will compete in the week-long tournament.

Pete Williams, senior justice correspondent for NBC Nightly News, and also a former high school debater, delivered keynote remarks with humor and an understanding of what students would face in the coming week.

“College debaters, I salute you,” Williams said. “Many of the people I have met in my career – lawyers, public officials, journalists – were high school and college debaters. Just today, I was at the U.S. Supreme Court with brand new Justice Neil Gorsuch from Colorado, a former high school debater. And despite that, he went on to become a Supreme Court Justice," Williams joked.

Williams recalled his high school debate career and how his coach selected him to debate "extemp" (an extemporaneous style in which the debater selects a card containing a topic they must research in a limited time and deliver a comprehensive speech). While he would not have chosen that style, Williams said it has served him throughout his career as a reporter, press secretary for Wyoming Rep. Dick Cheney, spokesman for the Department of Defense under Cheney’s leadership and now at NBC.

“No matter what you end up doing after you graduate, the ability to stand up and speak to an audience is a genuine, life skill. It certainly helped me in broadcasting,” he said. “All those years of sweating extemp speeches helped me prepare for reporting on live television, and for standing behind the lectern at the Pentagon when I was spokesman for the Department of Defense.”

He said he hoped the participants would form life-long habits to follow current events, to research multiple sources and make informed decisions.

“Studies show when someone believes something passionately, contrary information doesn't change their minds, they just dismiss it. I know as students you have plenty to do without following the news, but I do hope you will develop a habit as you grow older of reading the newspaper if there are any left when you graduate, and of looking at the news on the Internet or listening to it on the radio and watching it on television. The founders of our country had it in mind that we would all make choices together about how we want this place run,” he said. “They wanted us to be a part of it. To go to the polls and vote, to help choose our leaders. They expected that if we make these decisions, that we would have some idea of what we were doing. That we would be informed.”

Williams concluded his remarks by saying he hoped participants would care enough about their surroundings to use their classical cynicism to change things that should be changed, and to offer words of praise when things are done correctly. 

Northern Virginia Community College is the largest institution of higher education in the Commonwealth of Virginia and one of America's largest community colleges. NOVA enrolls more than 75,000 students at its six campuses in Alexandria, Annandale, Loudoun, Manassas, Springfield and Woodbridge, and through NOVA Online. For more information about NOVA and its programs or services, call 703-323-3000 or visit the College's Web site, www.nvcc.edu.