TEDx at UVA: Making the path

Alex Wirth speaks at the 2014 TEDx UVA conference. Photo: Manali Sontakke/ The Cavalier Daily Alex Wirth speaks at the 2014 TEDx UVA conference. Photo: Manali Sontakke/ The Cavalier Daily

A 20-year old mountain climber scales the world’s seven highest summits in support of gay and lesbian rights. A fourth-year computer-engineering student at UVA is recognized by many around the world as the king and founder of his own country. And a junior at Harvard University is appointed by Hillary Clinton to the U.S. National Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural organization (UNESCO) as the youngest member in history.

Those were just a few of the speakers chosen to embody the theme of “Make the Path,” the motto for last Saturday’s TEDx UVA conference at the University, which drew about 100 students to Nau Hall for presentations by students, professors, and others invited to join the local conference.

TEDx events are local, independently organized versions of the larger global TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) educational and inspirational conferences, constructed around the umbrella theme of “Ideas Worth Spreading.” Saturday’s conference was the second of these conferences in the Charlottesville area in recent months since TEDx Charlottesville in November at the Paramount Theater, and the second one at UVA since 2013.

Porter Nenon, an undergraduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences, oversaw the student-run event as main curator of the organizing staff, who took the theme of “Make the Path” from a quote from Stephen Colbert’s valedictorian speech for the UVA graduating class of 2013, in which Colbert encouraged graduating students, in a declining job market, to “make the path for yourself.”

Nenon said the process for organizing such independent, local TED events is relatively simple. Licenses are granted one at a time by city, state, and region so as to prevent concurrent TEDx events with the same name, and once approved for a license, organizers are given a 126-page manual on how to conduct their conference.

“They’re honestly really great at letting TEDx tailor events to their local communities, and to tend their attendees in the best way they can,” Nenon said.

Katie Morley, the chair of the speakers committee, the division of the organizing staff responsible for arranging presenters, said the conferences permit full creative control by the planners.

“You just say that you’re going to abide by the rules,” she said. “It’s run completely by the people doing the TEDx. It’s conducive to what TED wants to create, seeing what people out there are doing, diversifying from the mainstream.”

The organizing staff chose presenters, including students, faculty, and guest speakers, who focused their talks around their personal experiences in forging their own paths in their careers, personal lives, and experiences, as well as encouraging others on how to do the same. The student organizers tried to appeal to the larger UVA student body, they said, picking  presenters based on the relevancy of their talks to the modern college experience. Even the format of the talks, presented in one of the lecture rooms of Nau Hall, UVA’s history building, seemed to reflect the traditional lecture format to which most college students are accustomed in their classes.

Karsten Coates, a second-year UVA student and poet, used his TED talk, “Between Lust and Love,” to examine the apparent confusion surrounding the relationship between sexuality and romantic attraction in college culture. Coates believes live speech is a particularly effective way to spread messages such as this.

 “The spoken word is an art form that people don’t engage in as much as they should,” he said. “I try to engage people with this new art form, and to use the art form to spread ideas worth sharing. “

“By presenting it through poetry,” he said, “it permits metaphors and imagery and helps people to relate to it on a personal level, rather than on a quantitative or qualitative level, where you might not appreciate the emotions at play.”

Nenon said that the main goal of the event was to connect students at the University to their peers and faculty.

“By far the purpose is to encourage connections that wouldn’t happen in traditional classroom settings,” he said. “It pushes the boundaries of academic discipline in a way that is a good complement to traditional classroom learning that students do on a weekly basis.”—Matthew Fay