Story by Mark Heller
Photos by Slaven Gujic
GCU News Bureau
Alyssa Fernandez admitted she missed her Thursday afternoon classes, but the Grand Canyon University junior still got an education.
Fernandez was one of approximately 1,000 attendees inside GCU Arena for the University’s inaugural TEDx speaker showcase: 18 speakers and five videos culminating in eight hours of thought-provoking, emotional and poignant speeches on a wide variety of subjects and ideas.
Fernandez watched a couple of TED talks in class. But the chance to watch in person and hear about topics she found intriguing was worth much more than the price of admission.
“This is great,” she said during an intermission. “These talks are pretty powerful, and there’s so much you can take away from this. It’s educational and inspirational stuff that challenges your thoughts.
“It was worth it. I’ll go back to class (Friday).”
TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a nonprofit that spreads concepts using short, powerful talks on a wide swath of topics, including science, business, sociology and global issues. In 2009, TED launched TEDx with the goal of bringing the TED experience to local communities, cities and universities.
The brainchild of GCU students Jedidiah Woods and Austin Mosher, TEDx at Grand Canyon University was fostered through the Paul Waterman-led Project Management Club. With help from CCOB Dean Dr. Randy Gibb, assistant professor Tim Kelley and a slew of GCU faculty, an exhaustive nine months of planning, hiring, organizing (with help from 10 company sponsorships) and event management culminated in this student-led production that Woods and Mosher expect to return for 2018 and beyond.
Kelley and Waterman co-MC’d the TEDx event. Woods said all of Thursday’s TEDx talks (which were filmed) will be edited and sent to TED headquarters in New York City within the next two weeks.
The “Be a Part of Something Great” theme featured men and women from all walks of life personally and professionally who were chosen following auditions in late January. That tryout group included GCU President Brian Mueller and other faculty and staff; CEOs of local organizations such as the Arizona Humane Society and Insight.com; a former Navy Seal, Jeff Nichols; and several community members with inspirational life stories.
One of the highlights of Thursday’s talks was the one by Stephen Parisi, a GCU sophomore majoring in Education who challenged the value of bubble-sheet memorization tests and essays that often constitute American educational systems’ final exams. He countered that projects and presentations can provide better evaluation of students’ abilities, learning methods and critical-thinking skills necessary in the real world.
The day’s talks cut through a wide swath of subjects meant to provide a different perspective, including a discussion about perspective by David Schneider, a lifelong quadriplegic who shared how an ordeal attempting to open a pizza box at age 7 changed his self-image and worldview.
GCU’s director of IT and cybersecurity, Dr. Romeo Farinacci, donned the stage in a shiny, all-purple suit. The substance of his speech, however, matched his style as he reinforced the importance of family and personal protection in this digital age and closed by questioning whether such protection and safeguards influenced the presidential election.
In addition to Mueller’s energetic and statistic-driven talk about GCU’s effect on the local community, two of the most emotional and well-received speeches were from campus.
Allison Johnson is a GCU resident director who shared her battles growing up with a form of dyslexia. Her speech, “Seeing vs. Looking,” grew out of being tested for learning disabilities in third grade. All but one on the “expert” panel recommended she be put in special education classes.
The lone dissenter: her third-grade teacher.
“She gave me the freedom to be me,” Johnson said. “She saw that putting me in special education classes would have killed me.”
A random meeting with a student who share her similar learning disability two days before the TEDx auditions reshaped Johnson’s presentation, which focused on the differences between “seeing” someone (deeper being of a person) and “looking” (surface level).
“Looking is easier and safer at arm’s length,” she said. “… I sometimes struggle with ‘Am I enough?’ Yet I love who I am.”
A few speakers later, fellow GCU resident director Nicole Clifton took the stage and delivered a charged presentation about our self-identity titled, “Both/And, not Either/Or.”
Inspired by her resident director in college, she urged the crowd to forgo the typical “brain or heart” thought process, in which we define ourselves as being either one or the other.
Instead, she believes human beings should use both brain and heart in making decisions. It’s what helped her decide to (finally) get a tattoo on her left shoulder, a series of “and” statements inspired from books she’s read as a reminder that “we are both or many of these things:”
“Identity is complex, but our culture often refutes them or insists we label ourselves and each other one way or another,” she said. “I’m a realist.”
From the comedic to poignant, cognitive to emotional, global to hyperlocal, business or personal, the day was about sharing: thoughts, ideas, feelings, concepts energy and more on a global stage.
They were a part of something great.
“It’s a whole process that we didn’t know what we were getting into,” Woods said. “Every year we want to make this better and better.”
Contact Mark Heller at (602) 639-7516 or firstname.lastname@example.org