TEDxGCU speakers share inspiring stories of perseverance

Riley Sewell talks of her experience surviving the Boxer Day tsunami in Thailand as she makes her presentation, “An Insight I Almost Died For,” during the TEDxGCU Square One Main Event Friday at GCU Arena.

Photos by Ralph Freso / Slideshow

1 … 2 … 3.

“All I need is three seconds of insane courage,” said Riley Sewell.

One of the eight speakers at TEDxGrandCanyonUniversity Friday night at GCU Arena spoke about fear, telling the crowd her family’s story of surviving The Boxing Day tsunami while on a trip to Thailand in 2004.

Riley, then 10 years old, was running when both parents grabbed a hold of her two younger sisters' hands as they sprinted to the top of a mountain for safety.

“I shouldn’t be telling this story today,” Sewell said.

Since that traumatic experience, Sewell had to regain her love for the ocean when her father signed her up for beach lifeguard training in New Zealand.

She had to start from “Square One,” the theme this year of TEDxGCU, the seventh annual event that features inspiring talks and performances.

Ever heard of post dramatic growth?

It’s the idea that after trauma, people can grow from their traumatic experiences. The difference between someone with post-traumatic stress and someone who experiences post-traumatic growth is that they have one safe person they can disclose everything with.

“Finding that person is critical, because then you can go through the hard things and grow from them,” Sewell said. “If you don’t have someone in your corner, then do it for your younger self. I imagine little Riley and imagine what she needed. I want to become the person that she needed.”

All eight speakers’ talks resonated with starting over and learning from their younger selves.

Dr. Kristen Eccleston speaks on “Overcoming the Limitations of a One-Size-Fits-All Education."

Dr. Kristen Eccleston’s “Empowering All Learners: Overcoming the Limitations of a One-Size-Fits-All Education” opened the TEDx platform with a look into mental health and neurodiversity approaches in the K-12 education system.

Otherwise known as “The NeuroDiverse Teacher,” Eccleston shared nontraditional teaching methods and emphasized showing the student, who may be considered a “bad egg,” what they are capable of. 

Simone Lipkin plays an original song at the event. She was signed by a management company when she was just 16 years old.

Simone Lipkin captivated the audience with her music career launch story and songs. Lipkin’s $100 silver, glittered guitar is the piece that helped begin her music career. By age 11, she had written a song called “Contagious,” which she sang to Friday night’s crowd.

She was signed by a management company when she was 16. Being in the industry, “perseverance is essential in making it in the careers we want,” she said.

Her stories and lyrics seemed to resonate with the crowd. Her younger brother soon began to follow in her footsteps in writing music. She shared a conversation she had with her brother: “We weren’t told to write songs and play music, we just did.”

Students and guest listen to the featured speakers at TEDxGCU.

In the spirit of keeping the tradition alive, the last talk of the first set was given by GCU student Riley Bricker. The marketing and advertising major used her autoimmune disorder, celiac disease, to describe how “Diet Culture is Invalidating.”

Celiac disease is a chronic digestive immune disorder that damages the small intestine because of eating foods with gluten.

She painted a picture in the audience’s mind by describing the “peanut table” in elementary school where students with peanut allergies had to sit to prevent cross contamination. Troubled by gluten-free options having a higher sugar intake, making them unhealthier than the original product, Bricker is advocating for knowledge about autoimmune diseases.

Taught at a young and impressionable age, it is difficult for people to view someone with an autoimmune disease as a regular student. By educating people on gluten-free options, everyone can have a seat at the lunch table, she said.

GCU advertising/marketing major Riley Bricker speaks about living with celiac disease.

“Uncomfortability Produces Joy,” presented by Maia Mae Huff, described the power of uncomfortable moments. When a drunk driver crashed into her, and they both ended up on the curb, she had to get back to square one of finding joy. Or when her grandfather suddenly passed away, she had to do the same.

Huff describes how joy can be a mixed emotional state. For example, incoming college students worry about paying for school, moving away from home and meeting new people. But the joy is still there — joy for a new beginning.

“It wasn’t the comfort of being alive, it was the discomfort that brought me joy,” Huff said.

Speaker Cody Byrns shared his "Stop Lights" story with attendees. In 2013, he was hit by a truck driver who failed to stop at a red light, resulting in his car exploding with him in it. He woke up “wrapped like a mummy,” and the first words he heard was his mom’s: “Cody, don’t lose sight of your mission.”

Byrns captivated the audience by his stage performance of juggling and his burn puns, but nothing would have prepared the audience for his balancing act. He held a stick in his mouth, carrying the weight of three burning candles and a balloon separating the two. The trick became all the more impressive when he popped the balloon and the candle remained standing.

The takeaway is, “When life collapses and our dreams and aspirations, keep your focus on what matters the most, find those lessons and use that challenge to enhance your overall mission.”

Cody Byrns, who showcased his juggling skills, was hit by a drunk driver and was in his car when it exploded.

The last two presented these talks:

  • “Control the Controllables,” in which Dr. Arman Taghizadeh is using his knowledge in psychology to spread mental health education in student-athletes to increase their performance.
  • “Returning to our Roots,” where it only took 32 feet to change Nick Custumpas’ life. He is a “plantrepreneur,” environmentally advocating for all things green.

The annual TEDxGCU is different from other TEDx events in that it is student planned, organized and executed.

TEDxGCU president Rocco Berbetti (left) introduces Abbie Gage as the 2023-2024 TEDx president.

As it happens annually, the famed red suit worn by past TEDxGCU presidents made a return, with Rocco Berbetti wearing it proudly.

“They are big shoes to fill. It’s really an honor to wear it,” Berbetti said of following other TEDxGCU leaders before him. 

His predecessor, Havilah Houston, gave him advice in leadership, but she left the reward for him to discover.

“I think the biggest reward of having to lead a lot of people, it forces you to learn, not for yourself but for other people. It forces you to become a better person. Not for yourself, but for your team,” Berbetti said.

The next president who will wear the red suit is Abbie Gage. She said it has been her dream since joining the TEDx team her sophomore year to lead the dynamic group of students that organizes these talks. She said she is excited to continue keeping the event more catered to GCU’s college students.

“Rocco and the other leaders before me have showed so much servant leadership. It is really one thing I want to keep going is serving my team members and supporting them so that we can keep making this organization run, because I know I can never do any of this by myself.”

Related Stories:

GCU News: Catalyst creates confidence in TEDx skills

GCU News: Students carry the day with record TEDx GCU crowd

GCU News: TEDxGCU verifies students’ pandemic perseverance

GCU News: Students overcome obstacles, again will stage TEDx


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"Prepare chains, because the land is full of bloodshed and the city is full of violence." (Ezekiel 7:23)

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