TEDxTufts lends voice to student speakers

Tony Cannistra, a Senior, is one of the inaugural conference's key organizers. Courtesy TEDxTufts via Tony Cannistra

When the nonprofit TED was first initiated in 1984, its goal was to act as a conduit for powerful ideas via live and video-recorded speeches. It was created as a medium to make ideas even more accessible to anyone. It was in this same spirit, with the desire to lend a platform to those worthy of projecting their words, that TEDxTufts was born.

TEDxTufts, whose inaugural conference is this month, is an independently-organized, undergraduate-led TED event that will showcase current students and alumni speakers. The featured presenters will speak on April 17.

According to event organizer and senior Tony Cannistra, Tufts Idea Exchange (TEX), a five-year-old organization that worked to provide undergraduate students with an opportunity to spread their thoughts to the greater Tufts community, has transitioned to being TEDxTufts.

Cannistra, who was TEX co-president last spring, explained that it was fairly natural for TEX to become TEDx since the two groups share a common cause.

“Myself and the other individual who was running Tufts Idea Exchange, Kit McDonnell … were approached by a group of students … who said, ‘Hey, we’re interested in bringing TEDx to campus. What do you think?’… and we said, ‘Yes, absolutely’ … It really sort of sprung out of the seed of the Tufts Idea Exchange, which was a very undergraduate-focused thing, into a more holistic Tufts event.”

Cannistra said that the group applied for a license with TED the following fall. After an eight-week-long wait, the team was given notice by TED headquarters that it had been awarded a license.

After this initial hurdle, there came the matter of securing speakers for the event, and soon several multi-step selection processes were underway. Cannistra said that the TEDx team looked especially for people who would likely put on an engaging talk.

“I think it is one thing to have a good idea, and it’s another thing to be really enthusiastic about the idea you have,” he said. “What we are good at, I think, is picking out people who care about something and who really are willing to put in the enormous amount of work it takes to present it in a coherent and interesting way.”

According to Cannistra, undergraduates formed their own independent category, separate from graduate students, faculty and alumni. Applicants had to submit an elevator-pitch overview for their idea via a google form.

Cannistra estimates that between 50 and 70 applications were received. The list was narrowed down to 30 students, who then met with TEDx team members for informal interviews.

“Then we had the most stressful part of this whole thing, which is getting our 30-person team in one room with a big Google spreadsheet and arguing about which … undergrads we think should be given spots to speak,” Cannistra said.

The team took a variety of factors into consideration, including the representation of a wide diversity of ideas and backgrounds, according to Cannistra. This year, TEDx boasts a lineup totalling nine speakers, including four undergraduates: seniors Gracie McKenzie, James Kiefner and Marcella Hastings, and junior Abuzar Royesh.

While the speakers and TEDx team are remaining fairly tight-lipped about their presentations, Hastings was able to provide a broad idea of her topic, and how it has gone through various stages of formulation over the past few years.

“Really, on an individual level, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last four years looking at how I interact with people,” she said. “I’ve noticed a lot of interesting dynamics in those relationships, and so my talk is going to be exploring some of those dynamics, and how they can be good and how they can be harmful.”

Hastings was nominated by one of her professors to apply and was urged by numerous friends to share her idea with the Tufts community. She said that because her idea has a degree of universality, as interactions with others shape our daily lives, she hopes it will resonate with and be constructive for audience members.

“Some of the ways I was interacting with my peers … didn’t necessarily make sense, and I wasn’t necessarily taking advantage of those relationships to the degree that I could be,” she said. “So that is when I first picked up on it … this turned out to be a really good channel to output some of those thoughts that I’ve been collecting.”

Hastings, an engineer studying computer science, said that her topic is completely divergent from her other areas of academic focus — she’s more familiar with technical topics in a formal, academic environment. At this stage in her preparation for her talk, with a finished draft and support from the TEDx team, Hastings is working to fine-tune her final product.

“The group has given me two speaking coaches … [and] we’ve been meeting every week to formulate the idea more,” she said. “I have the ideas, I have the layout and now it’s going to be presenting it to my friends and presenting it to the TEDxTufts team.”

Ultimately, Hastings hopes her speech will make people more aware of how they interact with others and how they can utilize relationships in a more effective way.

“Learn from the silly things that I’ve done,” she said. “We can all learn more from each other along the way.”

McKenzie has had her idea simmering on the back-burner since the fall of her junior year, when she read a New York Times article about revolutionizing business by introducing voice features, like combining the ephemeral video-messaging features of SnapChat with GroupMe.

“The New York Times said something about the renaissance of voice, and that just clicked in my brain and all these thoughts came together,” McKenzie said. “I’m talking about a resurgence I see in the use of the voice through technologically-assisted communication … I’m really interested in applications of the voice that are a little non-traditional.”

McKenzie explained that while she holds no formal expertise in the area, she felt compelled to talk about voice because of the important roles it plays in her own life in less-conventional ways, like her preference of phone conversations to text messages and her role as a coxswain on the rowing team.

“It’s an idea I thought was interesting and wanted to explore more … I’m interviewing people at the MIT media lab and … BU department of emerging media [studies],” McKenzie said.

McKenzie noted that some of her findings do not directly match up with the notions she had previously held about voice.

“My idea of the world was colored by my experience,” McKenzie said.

Royesh’s speech will focus on the personal experiences and direct interactions he has had while working with displaced persons in Afghanistan.

“I will be speaking about the notion of privilege through my personal story,” Royesh said.” I want to question our conventional definitions of privilege or lack thereof.”

Royesh, who is from Afghanistan, co-founded an education and leadership project called Bridges Academy in 2010. The project works with internally displaced persons in the country, and it caused him to question his own perception of privilege.

He explained that he plans on using these experiences to help guide his future plans.

“After graduation from college, and more generally in the long-term, I want to go back to Afghanistan and work on social change,” he said. “I will also continue my project with displaced people and juvenile rehabilitation centers. I want to work in the Afghan government, especially with good governance.”

Due to a slight shift in their eligibility for space as sanctioned by TED headquarters, the TEDx event is now able to hold more seats than the team anticipated. Still, as a result of high demand and limited access, TEDxTufts will be holding viewing parties across campus, according to Cannistra.

According to Cannistra, since the event corresponds with Jumbo Days, the admissions office has expressed interest in holding a viewing party that would allow prospective students to mix and mingle with current undergraduates as they watch the speeches.

Cannistra highlighted the work of the team that TEDxTufts pulled together this year, including the acquisition of the funds necessary to bring the event to fruition despite the group’s lack of Tufts Community Union (TCU) recognition and funding.

“We’ve had some trying times … but we have an incredible group of people who just really persevere,” Cannistra said. “It’s been really a privilege to be involved in the initial startup of [TEDx] … I think we have something that’s really special.”

He also emphasized that as a part of the founding group of TEDx and with his impending graduation only weeks away, it was important to select underclassmen who would carry on the TEX and TEDx legacy and turn it into their own.

“We’ve spent a lot of time as the senior advisory group looking for younger people who are really enthusiastic and passionate, and that’s why we chose [sophomore] Slide Kelly as our curator, because he really showed really strong devotion to the idea, strong passion and is really doing a great job,” he said. “We’ve really chosen some amazing and passionate underclassmen, and I am looking forward to seeing what they do to make the event theirs.”