Students help bring stories from campus and beyond to the independent venture

TEDxSaintLouisUniversity, 11 months in the making, took place on Sunday, Jan. 31, in the Center for Global Citizenship (CGC). The event, modeled on the popular worldwide speaker series, showcased ten speakers from SLU and the wider St. Louis area, as well as three performances.

According to sophomore volunteer Han Diep, one of 65 volunteers and committee members, the event’s organizers tallied 310 pre-registered, complimentary and half-day tickets. However, many attendees bought tickets that day as well. The CGC’s student atrium housed a TED-themed backdrop for photos, as well as tables dedicated to local organizations like Parks College, Rally St. Louis and sellers of St. Louis-themed arts and crafts.

A video featuring TED curator Chris Anderson served as an introduction. Anderson said that TED, in all its manifestations, was a chance for people “to hear the best ideas bubbling up in their communities,” promising the audience that “the more you enter into it, the more you take out.”

Rocky Leng, a senior public health major and TEDxSLU’s lead organizer, took the stage for his own introductory speech. In his own words, he urged his listeners to “be inspired, connect, and be reminded that, despite daunting challenges, there are passionate people dedicated to making the world a better place.”

Jeremy Goss, a fourth-year medical student at SLU, took the lead with a confession that he is “that guy” during icebreakers, ready to declare, “I own a bus and I turned it into a grocery store.” The store in question is St. Louis Metro Market, a mobile farmers market serving low income communities, known as “food deserts,” which lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables. “I’m that guy,” he said, “because there are people in this city who don’t have a grocery store.” He recounted a winding path of discernment in the medical field, which culminated in a local doctor’s breakdown of St. Louis’ demographic structure and its consequent problems. This enlightening conversation moved his focus from South America to this city. “There’s no one more underserved than those who live in North St. Louis,” he asserted. This, he said, made for “challenging, painful work.”

In the spirit of TED, Goss said, “I’m not exceptional. I’m in a room of people who are exceptional. I’m the rule, not the exception.” His concluding remarks drew parallels with his audience. “Students are bold; we take risks,” he said. “We care about social justice.”

TEDxSLU featured two other student speakers: seniors Hannah Vestal and Roya Massoudnia. Vestal shared the genesis story of Billikens for Clean Water, a student collective devoted to educating their peers about the global water crisis, fundraising and walking in solidarity with those without access to clean water (well over half a billion, said Vestal). For Vestal, solidarity came in the form of carrying a bright-yellow Jerry can everywhere she went over the course of seven months.

Inevitable questions posed by passersby often led to donations; these, coupled with fundraisers, funded $7,500 for water-related efforts in Haiti and $2,500 in Belize. “As an advocate, I was called to lead a life for something greater than myself,” said Vestal. She imparted the message that, in their smallness, students had the potential to be great “if you connect with other people.”

Massoudnia elaborated on her experience as an Iranian-American citizen whose family moved back to Iran for several years. She recalled an episode of skipping school to take part in a political protest, where a friend told her, “You’re American. People will care. You are protected.” This became an affirmation of identity that proved valuable when confronted years later by a SLU classmate’s question during Massoudnia’s first political science class—Why do you hate America so much? She challenged the audience to fight empty and nefarious stereotypes of the Middle East. “Friends,” she said, “let’s start seeing the humanity in the other.”

The remaining talks of the day fluctuated from SLU-centric to representative of the greater St. Louis area. Kenneth Parker, theology professor and founder of SLU’s prison program, gave a talk entitled “What I Learned about Learning in Prison,” in which he argued that “Prison can be the most fertile ground to cultivate a love of learning.”

He brought out Christopher Riley, the first graduate of the program. “It felt like I’d won the lottery,” said Riley on being selected for the program. “My second chance was this college-in-prison program.”

Brian Boutwell, professor of criminology, and Ghazala Hayat, professor of neurology, used their SLU ties to speak on more human issues (the criminal justice system and interreligious dialogue, respectively).

Antonio French, alderman of St. Louis’ 21st ward, detailed the development of North Campus, a network providing educational support to children in the goal of lifting families out of poverty.

Operating on the premise of “Building Lives, Rebuilding Communities,” North Campus exists to foster a community where people “value the experience of folks that have been left out for too long.” French reached out to students to volunteer and “come help rebuild these communities.”

Physician Stephen Sanders, scientist Neeti Sinha and Air Force veteran Matt Whiat rounded out a roster that aimed for perspectives from both SLU and the city beyond.

“The beauty of TEDx is that it’s multidisciplinary,” said Leng. “SLU’s mission and the SLU culture is very multidisciplinary in nature … educating the whole person. In that regard, I think our mission has a lot to do with what we’re doing.”

Leng, like many of our generation, began as a viewer. “These TED talks had such an effect on me because they would remind me that there’s a world out there, outside of where I was at, outside of this university, outside of the St. Louis community,” he said. “There are problems that are huge, and there are people that are dedicated to making this world a better place. This world is scary sometimes, but watching these talks, it helps you reconnect with the community that you’re in and also the broader, greater world around you. That feeling is really what inspired me to bring this to Saint Louis University.”

He continued, “If we can provide a platform for people to share their ideas in an open space like this, to have conversations, talk, collaborate, and hopefully the idea is that something else can come from this.”

Leng said that his goal was to have TEDx every semester, as well as a TEDxYouth composed entirely of students.

In the face of hurdles as a first-year organization, Leng said the TED committee “did our best to reach out to university administration,” citing Dean of Students Mona Hicks as a crucial source of help. The Wellness Fund provided the much-needed funding.

“We want to work with SGA in the future,” said Leng, “but right now we don’t have as close of a relationship as we would like, because the nature of our organization doesn’t fit all of their criteria.”

Dolores Byrnes, a writer for the president’s office, listened throughout the day. Remarking on her familiarity with TED talks, she said, “When this [TED in general] first started, it would be really articulate, amazing people standing on a stage, jumping around,” citing in particular a talk on developmental statistics entitled “Mind the Gap.” She also said she “knew a couple people that gave them.”

Reacting to the day’s itinerary, she said, “This is a great format, and it’s actually really smart and provocative so far.” She continued, “What I read on their website was that they really take a lot of time to help people get their presentations ready, like they would train them up and stuff. I think probably everybody needs that … That would be a good thing for students.

“They’re trying to shake people up a bit in short spurts. That’s the idea. To make it kind of … fun to be smart.”

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