TEDxVassar is a student-led pre-organization that was launched by Vassar alumnus David Stevenson ’20 in 2018. It was created under the umbrella of the TEDx program, which is a grassroots initiative developed by the acclaimed TED Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to discovering and sharing ideas. The TEDx program is intended to help local communities research and discover “ideas worth spreading.” Under the program, TED grants local organizers a free license so that they can independently host their own live speakers or recorded TEDTalks. As of now, more than 3000 TEDx events are held annually.
In a written correspondence with the Miscellany News, Stevenson explained why he decided to implement TEDx at Vassar. He wrote, “I find innovations, ideas, and philosophies shared to be extremely inspiring and helpful even in some instances. Seeing other colleges and universities with their own TEDx events motivated me to start one at Vassar.”
He continued, “Vassar is the perfect place for such an event with the progressive, diverse, and inspiring ideas held throughout the Vassar family.”
The ultimate goal of TEDxVassar is to give the College’s close-knit liberal arts community an opportunity to come together to explore the variety of different experiences and identities that exist within it and even beyond it.
For its first event, TEDxVassar decided to host its own series of TEDx talks featuring Vassar students and faculty. The TEDxVassarCollege Conference, which had been one year in the making, was spearheaded by TEDxVassar co-presidents Charlotte Rhoads ’22 and Bailey Carrillo ’22.
The overall theme for this year’s conference was “Breaking Boundaries,” which can be defined broadly as the ability to empathetically understand and openly communicate differences in order to create a better Vassar and a better world.
In an interview with the Miscellany News, Rhoads elaborated on the organizing team’s rationale for selecting Breaking Boundaries as the theme. She stated, “Breaking Boundaries encapsulated our intentions as an org on campus but also honored our experience at Vassar as a liberal arts college that encourages multidisciplinary studies and hosts students with many varied experiences and stories.” She continued, “It felt broad enough so that students and faculty could really speak to what they wanted to.”
Rhoads went on to explain why the TEDxVassar organizing committee decided to feature Vassar faculty and students for this year’s conference. She wrote, “We were very conscious of our choice to have our first conference feature only Vassar students and faculty because, although a broader goal of ours was to make this a community tradition/event, we wanted to have more experience under our belts before we felt comfortable coordinating a cross- community event.”
The conference, which was emceed by Keming Yan ’22 and Elizabeth ‘Birky’ Cook ’23, commenced with Danielle Ncube’s ’24 talk entitled, “Looking to a Radical Unknown.” During her presentation, Ncube candidly detailed how she learned to be fine with being ordinary. She spoke about the unknown power of everyday decisions and “half-ideas” that contribute to the continual process of thinking and learning that leads to radical change.
Ncube’s discussion was followed by Abby Lass ’21. Her TEDx talk, named “Diversifying Our Data: A Call to Expand the Way We Measure Value,” was inspired by an independent research project she conducted at Vassar on the psychological benefits of theatre education for adolescents. She called on the audience to engage in a reconceptualization of what constitutes valuable data, and drew from her own life as a “theatre kid” in order to highlight the significance of lived experiences in data collection.
From Lass’s presentation, the conference transitioned to a discussion by Clara Lerchi ’21, “A Cure to the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness.” They opened their presentation with a poetic open letter to the word ‘disability’ and transitioned into a discussion on their experiences with being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. They emphasized the importance of understanding mental illnesses as differences instead of disadvantages.
Assistant Professor of Art and Urban Studies Adedoyin Teriba followed Lerchi’s talk. Teriba’s talk, “Love Breaks,” discussed how love, specifically the love of knowledge, can be used as a force to break boundaries. Teriba opened his presentation by referencing a scene from the British sitcom, “Mind Your Language,” and described how the characters’ mutual love for soccer was able to bring them together despite their differences. As Teriba stated, “The classroom is not just a place of the dissemination of knowledge. It engenders a family that crosses racial, ideological, partisan, name-it divides.”
Milind Joshi ’21’s presentation was then streamed. During his TEDx presentation, “Breaking Boundaries: Contextualizing the International Experience,” Joshi candidly spoke about his experience as an individual of South Asian descent living in America. He detailed the toxicity of the model minority myth and assimilation in the United States. He called on the Asian members of the audience to not be afraid to speak up about their own experiences and encouraged his white peers to not be afraid to listen.
A presentation by Anne Marie Abban-Demetrius ’21 came after Joshi’s. Her scientific-based presentation, “Stoic Psychotherapy: Development of a Novel Stoic Change to Therapy to Counter Stress Symptoms,” was inspired by the discovery that Black individuals in particular often had stress-induced preexisting conditions that put them at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19. She explored how a new type of psychotherapy developed from the principles of stoic philosophy could be used to mitigate stress symptoms specific to communities of people of color.
Assistant Professor of Music Justin Patch steered the conversation toward a different direction and discussed the intersection between noise and politics. His TEDx talk, “Noise Can Change Your Mind,” analyzed how crowd noise at political rallies has the power to both limit and change people’s imaginations. Drawing on his own experiences working on the 2008 Obama presidential campaign and attending the 2008 Democratic National Convention, he called on the audience to be conscious of what they make noise for and to “listen deeply and widely.”
Annie Xu’s ’22 “Towards the Great Unknown” came next. Xu’s discussion centered around following one’s own gut and feelings to overcome fears of uncertainty. When engaging in knowledge production, the speaker encouraged viewers to embrace “feelings of compassion” to learn with others.
Miku Migita ’21 presented after Xu’s TEDx talk. Migita’s talk, “What is Home? Navigating the In-Between,” was inspired by her experiences living in Japan, then Boston, then back to Japan and then New York. In her quest to figure out where her home is, Migita concluded that, “Home is not a place to find but the memories that exist in me.”
The livestream concluded with a TEDx talk delivered by Ames Stevens ’22. Their talk, “A Human Gender,” was based on their personal journey discovering their non-binary gender identity. They provided a critique of the societal gender binary which categorizes people as either a man or a woman, and proposed a renewed conception of gender that is more fluid and inspired by each individual’s human experiences and feelings.
After the livestream concluded, virtual viewers were able to join the TEDx speakers for a live Q&A session. In response to the questions posed by the audience, the presenters shared their own unique writing and drafting processes for their talks and provided further insights into how viewers could effectively break boundaries in their own lives.
When asked about their initial reactions to the Breaking Boundaries theme, the panelists collectively emphasized the necessity of building bridges after boundaries are broken.
As proclaimed by Lass, “I think many of us at Vassar think that there’s logic to the idea of ‘Burn it all down,’ ‘Get rid of the systems getting in our way.’ But then I think the question still stands of … How do you then go forward to build something better?”
Stevens echoed similar sentiments. They described the revelations they had as they were planning their TEDTalk about the societal gender binary. They stated, “The more I got into my talk, the more I got into writing it, it’s not as simple as…just like ‘The gender binary is bad’ because…it’s useful.” They went on to say, “I was like well, what do I really want to do? It’s not to destroy the gender binary. It’s to build something that is more human.”
As the Q&A session continued, the speakers took the opportunity to share some advice on how to begin the process of breaking boundaries.
Xu acknowledged how intimidating it may be to start breaking a boundary due to uncertainty. However, she went on to say, “I think this unknowingness can be a source of motivation, a springboard for knowing more.” She proceeded to say, “When you don’t know how to break a boundary, look at that part. Where does this unknowable feeling come from?”
Teriba added, “We, as a human society more than ever before, should have the courage to love.” He further elaborated, “As much as technology has really benefited us, we need to recover the art of just striking up conversations with people we don’t know.”
During the final portion of the Q&A panel, the speakers were asked what they hoped the audience would take away from the conference.
Many of the panelists emphasized the importance of using your voice. As Lass stated, “All the people up here are your peers and your colleagues. We’re not different from you in any particular way.” She continued, “Make sure that you take advantage of any avenue you can to share your ideas because they’re important and worthwhile.”
Other speakers promoted the idea of listening as an important component of breaking boundaries. Lerchi posited, “One thing I really like to think about is listening to hear rather than just listening to make a response.”
The first TEDxVassarCollege Conference seemed to accomplish its goal of breaking boundaries and building bridges for members of the Vassar community.
In an interview with the Miscellany News, Annika Sethre-Hofstad ’22 expressed her motivations for attending the TEDx event. She stated, “I wanted to see what Vassar students and faculty had to say so as to better understand my community.” After having viewed the TEDx talks, she found Teriba’s talk to be particularly resonant for her. She said, “It warmed my heart … As a learner of two foreign languages, I love any time that boundaries of language are broken.”
As for the future of TEDxVassar, its members hope that they continue hosting TEDx conferences in the future, whether they be virtual or in-person. Members also hope that this student-led effort encourages other Vassar students and faculty in particular to raise their voice.
In a written correspondence, Carrillo proclaimed, “I…hope that the attendees realize that this is just a small fraction of the campus. There are many other identities and experiences that coexist on this campus, and it is necessary to acknowledge and respect those individuals, too.”