In most TED talks the speaker is brought to the stage to present the success story of a career. In 18 minutes, she commandeers the attention of influential viewers and intrigued streamers. Years, even decades, of work get distilled down to a riveting collection of anecdotes and graphics.
Yet, immersed among the riveting stories of change, discovery and achievement, I can't help asking:
How did you get there?
Did you spend every night of college hunched over a notebook, pounding out that one equation we know you for? Or did it appear suddenly when brainstorming a grant proposal?
Many years ago, after attending my first TED conference in Boston, I believed the best remedy would be to expand the TEDYouth movement. By pairing influential thinkers with aspiring students, the youth could be exposed to budding fields and great discoveries at a critical age. However, the lack of direction still applies -- even with the direct connection to students, a path of hope remains lacking.
It wasn't until TEDxUND, now in its second year, that I saw the two aspects woven together. The talks captured the omnipresent essence of uncertainty that plagues collegiate decisions, while still showcasing innovative ideas. In an impromptu manner, the event also commemorated Father Ted Hesburgh, the towering president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, who had passed away the night before. Fr. Ted was the icon of achievement, a model of decisiveness and activism for all. In politics, he may be remembered for his string of 16 presidential appointments; in social activism for linking arms with Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago; while at his true home, students laude Fr. Ted for being the first to accept female students, and his occasional cigar.
Brian Snyder, emcee and ND class of 2002, captured the dual dynamic of the conference in his opening statements, "If Fr. Ted puts the TED in TEDxUND, then the x stands for the variable in an equation, the variable in our world."
At TEDxUND, most speakers were university students or younger. Whereas Fr. Ted represented the solution to the equation, the speakers stepped on stage pondering their own method for finding x. Through their attempts they found various levels of success, but I saw their true message to be rooted in their enthusiasm for their topics. A giddiness enveloped the event, one only experienced when the haze over one's future begins to clear.
In a personally touching account Edithstein Cho and Deandra Cadet recounted their project, Show Some Skin. The duo felt called to offer a portal into the issues persistent on Notre Dame's campus. Taking on a Vagina Monologues approach, they collected a variety of soliloquys anonymously and have actors recount them onstage. In their TED talk, Cho and Cadet presented a range of stereotypes and then alternate takes on them, exposing the true emotions and stories behind misconceptions. They were invigorated by the issues they had the chance to express, and were dedicated to expanding the scope and influence of their work.
Even the non-student speakers catered their addresses to the collegiate population's unmolded future. Susan Jackson, president of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, emphasized her life work with a series of memorable sayings, including, "You probably need less passion in your relationships," a case for using scientific reasoning to find common, non-emotional ground between industry and NGOs. At the end Jackson reminded the audience that "it doesn't get easier." You can either stop and try to stay neutral, only to have others take over, or keep driving and be seen as part of the solution.
TEDxUND, unlike previous TEDx events I have attended, did not go over my head. I never felt intimidated by the people who sat next to me, my peers that I met during breaks, or the individuals honored onstage. I connected to the visions and stories expressed during the talks, and looked forward to see the extent to which the budding concepts played out in the long run. All in all, TEDxUND gave me the comfort of knowing that if my peers have found their inspirations, then maybe mine isn't all that far away either.