New tradition suits GCU’s stylish TEDx production

February 24, 2020 / by / 0 Comment

The TEDxGrandCanyonUniversity team celebrates another successful year after Friday’s show in Ethington Theatre.

Story by Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Photos courtesy of TEDxGCU/Megan Allen

The theme for the evening was “In Plain Sight,” and the glorious red jacket was right there for the sold-out crowd in Ethington Theatre to plainly see Friday night.

Justin McLean and the now famous (at least in TEDxGCU circles) red jacket.

Little did they know they were witnessing a new tradition of TEDxGrandCanyonUniversity, the annual student-run event that in just four years has become one of the most valuable learning tools on campus.

The tradition first was woven into the program last year when Dominic Pachuilo, in his second year as TEDxGCU’s president, donned a red suit for the big night. When he graduated, he didn’t just hand off a massive undertaking to his successor, Justin McLean – he handed off some massively audacious threads as well.

McLean’s fellow TEDx directors, whose fashion sense clearly is as solid as their organizational capabilities, were on red alert. His reaction when they urged him to honor Pachuilo’s stylish legacy:

“I told them, ‘I’m not going to wear it. Dom pulled it off; I can’t.’ They said, ‘No, no, no. Wear it to our director meeting, and we’re going to see if you can pull it off.’ So I wore the full thing and people were like, ‘Do it! Do it!’ But I said, ‘I can’t do this. It’s not really my speed.’”

Still, he met them halfway. He wore the jacket Friday night even though it was a bit tight and the sleeves were a bit short. The red pants? “Still in my room,” he said. He went with black pants instead.

The TEDxGCU directors for this year’s show: top row (from left) Judah Smith (finance), Justin McLean (president), Konnor Bennett (production) and Steven Owens (Vice President of Content Creation); bottom row (from left), Emma Harris (design), Grace Moser (operations), Madeline Hooten (speaker acquisition), Lana DeGuzman (VP of Operations), Bri Hoggan (marketing), Ashley McAllister (new program development) and Havilah Houston (operations).

Nevertheless, Pachuilo was thrilled as he sat in the audience.

“It’s a new tradition,” he said. “I’m excited for the first female to run it, and they’ll have to cut it in a certain way that fits her. It’s definitely going to be a tradition.”

That will add one more eye-catching piece to a production that looks more professional with each passing year. 

The slick new addition Friday was the tall screen onstage that was used for projecting images and yet was porous enough to be able to see the shadow of the speaker/performer when they first came onstage.

Konnor Bennett, who was Director of Production in his fourth and final year on the TEDxGCU crew, had to shop for the right price. The first material he saw was $3,000, but then he found the right fabric at a sunshade store for only $400.

“It’s an idea that I had in the back of my mind for a while, so being able to execute it this year was just phenomenal,” he said.

Bennett’s four-year TEDx evolution mirrors the growth of the event. The only thing he got to produce as a freshman was a video, and then he served as Director of Videography for two years before running the entire production this year – and doing 13 videos. Afterward, the film production major was feeling nostalgic but also noted what this has done for him as Commencement looms in two months.

Alison Hadden’s talk about facing mortality drew the biggest ovation of the evening.

“I definitely think that anybody on the team, and especially the directors, an experience like this equips them for a lot of success, especially right after graduation,” he said. “This is stuff that goes right at the top of my resume. This is stuff that goes on the first page of my portfolio. It’s just a huge confidence-booster.”

McLean, the only other student who has been around for all four TEDxGCU events, has watched in wonder as new leaders and new efficiencies have emerged.  

“The bar keeps getting higher, and it seemed like losing experienced people didn’t matter,” he said. “People stepped up, and it’s just an extremely strong team culture that we have.

“It has come from kind of a hare-brained idea and ‘Let’s see if we can do this’ to the ultimate tool for preparing students for the real world, preparing them to be leaders, planners, just good people.”

That was the challenge the team’s advisor, Colangelo College of Business instructor Paul Waterman, laid down when the “hare-brained idea” was hatched. Waterman doesn’t tell them what to do every step of the way. If the event is going to succeed, the students have to pull the rabbit out of the hat.

“They’re adults. They’re learning how to be leaders,” he said. “They have to develop the machine, given the challenges of being in the university environment where the skills of the tribe leave every few years.

Tia Penny showed an astonishing amount of talent and poise for a 12-year-old.

“The challenges of building a team and training your replacement are world-class skills that they’re going to be able to use in the project-management context – that’s what we do. It’s awesome to see them running with this thing and doing it without a lot of hand-holding.”

They even extended a hand to high school students this year with their first “Catalyst” session. Four TEDx prodigies from Paradise Valley High School were brought onstage during the show to share what they learned.

Friday’s production couldn’t have gone more smoothly. The six speakers and two performers were consistently strong, in particular Alison Hadden, whose emotional and yet humorous talk about facing her own mortality as she battles breast cancer earned a standing ovation.

The “In Plain Sight” idea resonated throughout the evening, which also included:

  • Catherine Plano, who declared that getting what you want out of life starts with getting things out of the way
  • Andy Maurer, an emotional wellness coach for leaders who had some interesting insights into the traumas they often feel
  • The incredible musical talent of 12-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist Tia Penny
  • The calming effect of Mario Garcia’s painting and calligraphy
  • Jessica Brubaker’s thoughts, also filled with a strong dose of humor, about taking care of ourselves
  • Rian Doris, a reformed workaholic who now believes, “Productivity is not about doing more, it’s about getting more done.”
  • J.A. Plosker with an interesting take on the value of being a “nobody,” and what that should look like, rather than trying to be “somebody”

From left, Justin McLean, Caleb Duarte and Konnor Bennett.

Just as important was the emcee work of GCU senior Caleb Duarte in his second year as the TEDx host and, he hopes, in the early stages of a career in entertainment. He commanded the show from start to finish with introductions and interviews of the speakers/performers. But, like the other students, he simply was grateful for the opportunity.

“It’s honestly been a really humbling experience,” he said. “I’ve been able to host a lot of different things across campus, and it’s been in a very similar lane – a college audience. It’s a unique experience to tone down the college, late night humor and instead focus on setting the tone for a more serious ‘you’re going to learn ideas, you’re going to be challenged.’

“It really helps me grow in terms of being a performer, being an entertainer and being a host.”

When it was over, Duarte waved McLean onto the stage to share with the audience his thoughts about what this all means. The business management major talked about the sense of community (“What TEDx is all about,” he said) but added, “You’re empowering us to grow, you’re empowering us to serve, you’re empowering us to take your job.”

Taking McLean’s job for the 2021 TEDxGCU will be junior Steven Owens, the Vice President of Content Creation this year. Owens attributes his personal growth to the opportunities he has received at GCU and feels honored to tackle the challenge of trying to exceed what McLean and Pachuilo have accomplished.

“These guys, Justin and Dom, have taken me under their wing and shown me how to lead others in a humble and respectful way,” Owens said. “That’s been something that has had a huge impact on my leadership and my growth.

“I’m just learning how to lead others, and I think that’s really what makes this event happen, is having those directors lead their team members and the team members lead their fellow team members – the humble and selfless servant leadership that we have on TEDxGCU.”

But on to the important question. Will he wear the red suit?

“I will be wearing the red jacket next year,” said Owens, who got in the spirit by wearing a red bow tie Friday.

Ahem. What about the red pants? Gotta rock the pants, too.

“I might. I might have to get them tailored, though. Justin, he has thunder thighs. He goes to the gym.”

Sounds as if the new tradition will fit just fine.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


Related content:

GCU Today: Students’ coaching of speakers is the talk of TEDx

GCU Today: Students’ TEDx production gets a standing ovation

GCU Today: Speakers, listeners ‘part of something great’ at TEDx




















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