TEDxGCU verifies students' pandemic perseverance

The team of Grand Canyon University students put together the TEDxGCU program after months of COVID-19 challenges.

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Rylan Dressendorfer
GCU News Bureau

It has become a tradition, these Grand Canyon University students smiling for their group photo after another successful TEDxGCU event.

But this time, the smiles were a little wider and the emotions were running a little deeper.

Steven Owens (left) was resplendent in the now traditional red suit, which his successor, Havilah Houston, says she'll wear next year – one way or another.

This wasn’t just any success. It was among the most notable achievements in recent years by any GCU group – staff, faculty and students.

Especially because it was entirely by students.

Not only did they overcome months of pandemic-induced uncertainty and angst to stage the fifth annual TEDxGCU. With a little luck and a lot of pluck, they found a venue that proved perfect, sold every ticket they had available and, most importantly, went 8-for-8 on the speakers and performers who wowed the crowd at New City Church.

This year’s TEDxGCU President, Steven Owens, likes to say, “Players win games, coaches lose games.” And he knew what his players accomplished.

“I think my players are winning their games,” he said. “It’s not me who put this event together, it’s my team as a whole and I’m very, very thankful for their hard work. I call this event a success, and the credit goes to the hard work my team members have put in.”

Owens was wearing the blaring red suit that has been donned on the night of the event by TEDxGCU presidents since Dominic Pachuilo first bought it for $50 at an after Christmas sale in 2019.

It cost $200 to have it tailored just days before to fit Owens (“I had to – it’s the tradition,” he said), but the tradition will have to be altered further next year for the first female TEDxGCU leader, Havilah Houston. More about that later.

For the longest time during the 2020-21 academic year, the student organizers wondered if the red suit would come out of the closet at all.

The first speaker, Amanda Nighbert, addresses an audience that was larger than originally expected because of Arizona's recent easing of pandemic restrictions.

In recent years, the date for TEDxGCU was decided well before it took the stage in late February in Ethington Theatre. “We were going to have all these things set in motion before school started,” said Luis Peña Espinoza, Vice President of Content Creation. But COVID-19 protocols left that plan paralyzed.

Instead, they waited. And waited. And wondered. Then, as the pandemic wore on and it became clear that they couldn’t stage a public event on campus, they scouted Valley venues and made a sobering discovery: Instead of being able to hold the event on campus for free, they would have to pay a lot of money for rent, insurance and equipment.

Their only choice was to ask their sponsors for help.

“Pitching who we are and what we have to offer to get thousands and thousands of dollars of value is not an easy task, especially as 18-, 20- and 21-year-olds,” Houston said. “But here we are.”

Emcee Austin Rockwell

Just in time, New City Church – its Lead Pastor, Brian Kruckenberg, is a frequent speaker at GCU's Monday morning Chapel services – came through with a generous offer. Sponsors helped in other ways, and finally the date was set in early February – the event would be a month later than usual, but at least they had a date. Smartly, they had continued the other parts of the TEDx process (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design) through all the uncertainty.

“Even though we didn’t have a venue, even though we didn’t have a date, we still kept going,” Peña said. “We still made designs. We still reached out to speakers. We went through hundreds of applicants to make sure we had the best quality speakers. We were still practicing our craft with production and operations.”

The speakers and performers are the most important piece. If they’re not good, it doesn’t matter how ideal the venue is. That task fell to Gabriel Canizales, Director of Speaker Acquisition, and his team (see list of directors and teams below).

Together, they went about finding speakers in a different way: Rather than wait to see who applies and then build the theme around their choices, they set the theme – “What Does It Mean to be Verified? – and looked for speakers who fit that. They searched social media. They scoured the internet. They worked it.

“Doing so has changed the entire dynamic,” Canizales said.

The TEDxGCU 2021 speakers, from left: Tye Dutcher, Amanda Nighbert, Tyson Motsenbocker, Dr. Lisa Strohman, Zach Honarvar, Dr. Anthony Orsini, Jason Schechterle, Jodi King and Chris Rademaker.

In several cases, it worked out so perfectly, the student leaders couldn’t help but wonder whether God is a TEDxGCU fan, too. Here’s a rundown of who took the stage for the "TED talks," energetically emceed by Austin Rockwell, and how they made such a verifiable impact:

AMANDA NIGHBERT: “The Number One Reason Why Dieters Fail”

She was the ideal leadoff hitter for the “Verified” theme, in Canizales’ eyes. “I saw that as an opportunity to get the idea and put it into play and practice,” he said.

But as the members of the speaker acquisition team often do, Sophie Kalinke worked with Nighbert to bring out her message of making balanced food choices and just trying to be consistently good, not perfect.

“We made sure the talk was aligned not only with the theme but also was kind of controversial or eye-opening – to rethink what life is all about,” Canizales said.

Rockwell brought a toy hoop onstage to provide a dunking opportunity for Honarvar, who once dreamed of playing pro basketball.

ZACH HONARVAR: “Planners Live the Dream”

This is a good example of what a difference it made to reach out to potential speakers. The students didn’t think he’d be willing to take time out from his busy schedule of managing digital talent such as Yes Theory and the Cheeky Boyos, but he agreed to come to Phoenix and delivered a strong talk on being a doer, not just a dreamer.

“Planners get what they want out of life and thus get their dreams,” he said.

TYE DUTCHER: “The Power of Choosing Gratitude”

Each half of the presentation, on either side of the intermission, featured someone who has powered through tragedy, and Dutcher has a simple but simply marvelous attitude about losing the lower half of his right leg in a lawnmower accident when he was 11: He lives what he calls “a life of passionate gratitude.”

From the time he told his mother soon after the accident, “Mom, I know this happened for a reason,” Dutcher kept looking for ways to keep moving. Wearing shorts to show his prosthetic and fighting back tears the whole time, he talked of how it led to his career as a Paralympic swimmer.

“We saw him on local websites and saw that he was looking to do a book, so we knew he had ideas,” Canizales said.

King and Rademaker shared their music as well as their inspirational message.

LOVE & THE OUTCOME: “You Got This”

Here’s where you start wondering about divine intervention. The husband-wife duo of Jodi King and Chris Rademaker was the students’ third choice. After two previous acts were all set and then had to cancel, the agent for the second potential performer suggested Love & the Outcome as the replacement.  

Their message was as good as their music. King talked eloquently about their journey, living out of their car as they traveled from gig to gig and being stuck at home like everyone else during the pandemic. But through it all, they have maintained their faith and their love for each other.

“When I think of them, that’s the couple I want to be,” Canizales said. “You can feel their love and you can feel their whole spirit.”

DR. ANTHONY ORSINI: “How the Human Connection Improves Health Care”

Another controversial message after another as-fate-would-have-it coincidence: The Orlando, Florida, physician became available only after his scheduled TED talk at another university was canceled.

He began with the story of watching a doctor tell a father in very abrupt fashion that his baby boy had died. It had such an impact on Orsini that he vowed to make personal relations with patients his No. 1 priority.

Jason Schechterle displays the yardstick he has used to measure his progress from his horrific injuries.

“We can’t cure everyone,” he said, “but we can heal everyone."

DR. LISA STROHMAN: “How Do You Find Self-Worth?”

The former FBI agent is now a clinical psychologist who seeks to raise awareness about what social media does to people.

“This is what ‘Verified’ is really about,” Canizales said. “This is our identity. This is what our theme sought to be.”

Strohman offered some scary statistics: There are 4.2 billion social media users in the world, and people who regularly check social media do so for an average of 2½ hours per day.

It can damage your self-worth, she said, and emphasized, “You are enough.”


So many parallels. So many strong messages.

Friday was the 20th anniversary of the accident that changed Schechterle’s life: He was a Phoenix police officer when, while waiting at an intersection, his cruiser was hit from behind by a taxi going 115 mph – the driver had suffered an epileptic seizure.

When Schechterle woke from a coma 2½ months later, he had fourth-degree burns over 40% of his body. His face and his fingers (what was left of them) had to be reconstructed.

But here he was, telling his story with humor and grace while holding the yardstick he uses to mark off his progress.

“Life is 10% of what happens to us and 90% of how we react to it,” he said.

Here’s how he reacted: Before the accident, he was a 2-handicap golfer. Now he’s a 1 handicap.

“Sometimes the most beautiful, inspirational changes will disguise themselves as utter devastation,” he said. “Be patient. Don’t let the pain of today blind you from the promise of tomorrow.”

Not surprisingly, he received a standing ovation when he was finished. “What he’s done has shocked me to my core,” Canizales said.

Tyson Motsenbocker wrapped up the evening with humor and wisdom.

TYSON MOTSENBOCKER: “Joy and Sorrow Holding Hands”

The perfect capper to the evening: a humorous, wisdom-filled talk by a songwriter who focuses on nostalgia and sentimentality.

He said things like this:

“I lie about the past because I want it to be better than it was.”

“In movies, death comes at the end. In life, it comes in the middle.”

Motsenbocker told, with hilarious details, about his mother’s dying days − thus, the "Joy and Sorrow Holding Hands" − and how she wanted him to mark her passing by doing something “stupid and irresponsible.”

So he walked from San Diego to San Francisco. His stories from that painful journey captivated the audience, particularly its surprising result: On the 31st day, he said it was “the most peace I’ve ever felt. … It wasn’t in spite my sufferings. It was because of them.”

Which led him to one final piece of wisdom: In a society filled with failure and tragedy, he said, “I don’t think we get anywhere we want to go without walking through those things.”


When the event was over, it felt as if no one wanted to leave – certainly not the student organizers, basking in the glow of the evening.

“There’s just so much good energy flowing throughout the whole event,” Peña said. “So many smiling faces, so many conversations happening – I’m so happy we get to do that with our community.”

The students do more with the community than just put on the event. With the assistance of scholarship recipients in the Students Inspiring Students program, TEDxGCU reaches out to high schoolers through its Catalyst initiative to teach them how to do a TED talk and how to put on a TEDx event. Peña, an SIS student himself, expects many of those students to sign up for the TEDx team if and when they attend GCU.

So it all worked out. Wow, it worked out. But now Houston faces maybe the biggest decision of all: What about the red suit? After all, well, she’s a she.

“I’m absolutely wearing the blazer,” she said. “Somehow, we’re going to have to add a little bit of fabric. Or we’re going to have to get a female set.”

Of course, there’s the little matter of how much a $50 suit can take.

“It’s very cheap material,” Owens said. “Maybe we’ll have to start a new tradition … but my tailor’s pretty good.”

Houston will figure it out. After all, making good decisions is a TEDxGCU tradition, too.

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

TEDxGCU 2021


President: Steven Owens

Vice President of Content Creation: Luis Pena Espinoza

Vice President of Marketing and Operations: Havilah Houston

Finance: Colsen Bunn

Operations: Kaya Grigsby, Christa Lopez

Marketing: Victoria Gahm

Design: Sarah Brossow

Speaker Acquisition: Gabriel Canizales


Finance: Cassidy Alexander, Kevin Wooden

Operations: Billy Aiello, Dante Barton, Delaney Fulton, Delia Van Heukelem, Elise Martinson, Emmaline Czajkowski, Stephanie Sween, Vanessa Harris

Marketing: Sam Kuzminsk, Rileigh Maples, Belle Rakestraw, Katherine Regardie

Design: Sylvanus Edi, Rocco Berbetti, Grace Gundacker

Speaker Acquisition: Allison Moen, Daniel Farrington, Isai Gomez, Julia Stevens, Kyli Alvarez, Logan Smith, Madeline McEnroe and Sophie Kalinke.

Production: Caroline Diel, Katherine Diel, Melissa Papulski


Related content:

GCU Today: New tradition suits GCU's stylish TEDx production

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

GCU Today: Students' TEDx production gets a standing ovation

GCU Today: Managing TEDx event is a pivotal student experience

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


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