February 19, 2019
Let the ideas flow
The TEDxUNC Conference gives students a way to work as part of a committee to increase intellectual stimulation and share life experiences.
Interactive Event Sessions
When Radhika Kattula was in high school, she focused on how to bring others around to her way of thinking. Pressing her point of view. Debating points on their merit. And persuading others toward her perspective. Now, as a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill, she’s identified another way to ensure that important ideas find favor among an even broader audience.
“For the past several years, I’ve competitively given speeches as part of high school speech and debate,” Kattula said. “This year, as part of the TEDxUNC student organizing committee, it’s been an amazing learning experience to step away from speaking myself and instead work on bringing speakers from all over North Carolina and beyond and supporting them as they share their own messages and ideas worth spreading.”
Kattula’s personal evolution from idea debater to event organizer captures the essence of the 2019 TEDxUNC event theme of “Flow.” All discussion topics at the event revolved around the notion that the experiences, choices and actions of our past – like Kattula’s participation in speech and debate – flow into and shape our present and future.
A spirit of intellectual growth
The abstractness of the “flow” theme found tangible form when the event kicked off on Saturday, February 26 at the CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio. During two three-hour sessions, 12 presenters spoke about ideas that informed and inspired, while sparking intriguing questions:
● How did life growing up in Venezuela inspire a student to use media as an outlet for change?
● How did an athletic setback lead an Olympic figure skater to research new technologies for mental health?
● How did a student’s lifelong experiences as a seamstress lead her to found a company that diverts textile waste from landfills?
● How did a violent tragedy in the life of a special education teacher shape his journey to become a filmmaker who works on cross-cultural awareness and conflict resolution?
“Some of the topics we wanted to cover, including education, immigration, mental health, identity, and counter-cultural lifestyles, could all be encompassed into this topic of ‘flow,’” said Meghan Moloney, one of three co-curators for the event. “Each of these topics, along with the others we’re able to explore this year, is constantly changing, and our modern interaction with them is just one step along a long, historical flow.”
The learning process around TEDxUNC doesn’t just start on the day of the event. For the 24 students who work to organize the event, it’s months – and sometimes years – in the making. Monloney says that she joined TEDxUNC several years ago because it was an opportunity to stretch herself intellectually.
“That’s the atmosphere that continues to surround our committee and the larger community around TEDxUNC — a spirit of intellectual growth and the movement of ideas,” she said. “We each feel a desire to learn as much as we can, to hear from people with different perspectives, and to constantly evolve alongside this ever-changing world. We’re motivated to work so hard on TEDxUNC because the organization contributes to an event, an overall campus spirit of intellectual stimulation and the sharing of lived experiences.”
Learning and leading
As much as the event attendees learn, the students who plan the event learn even more. The conference operates under a license from TED, Moloney says, but it is independently organized and curated completely by committees of UNC-Chapel Hill students.
Sophomore Nhi Nguyen describes a divide-and-conquer strategy where the students organize themselves into seven committees – curators, graphic design, marketing, speakers, conference design logistics and outreach – to accomplish the different tasks needed to make the conference happen. Students learn why each role is critical, regardless of how visible they are to the crowd.
“This is my second year on the logistics committee, and I have learned how much more there is to organizing an event of this scale than just the conference itself,” said Nguyen. “I was initially surprised when what I was doing had almost nothing to do with what the audience would see during the conference itself. Logistics involves all of the behind the scenes work that generally goes unnoticed by the audience.”
And as Moloney notes, the ultimate success of the event rests with how well the individual committees coalesce, which gives students like her the chance to step in and lead.
“My experience curating this conference has taught me an enormous amount about effective leadership and management,” says Moloney. “It’s challenging to be a leader among my peers, but I have been surprised and encouraged by the level of enthusiasm that the committee has brought to this conference. Everyone has maintained an enthusiasm and excitement that has fueled our conference from within.”
While students are the ones responsible for managing the entire event process, they don’t dive in totally alone. They receive guidance from faculty advisor Dana McMahan, a professor of the practice at the UNC School of Media and Journalism, and key campus partners.
“The student organizing committee is supported financially, professionally and personally by Innovate Carolina,” said Moloney. “Although they’re mostly behind-the-scenes, the Innovate staff has been vital to our success. They’ve guided us through everything from financial decisions to the event’s creative vision, and we couldn’t be more thankful to Innovate for enabling TEDxUNC to exist and thrive on campus.”
Looking ahead, the TEDxUNC student team always seeks new students to join and help plan the next year’s event as current students graduate. It issues applications and recruits students for its organizing committee during the first few weeks of the school year, Moloney explains. And as Nguyen notes, students who can lend particular skillsets and work styles are essential.
“To move forward, TEDxUNC needs students who have strong communication and teamwork skills,” she says. “They also need to be motivated since there are only a few months to plan an entire conference, which includes brainstorming, researching, contacting speakers, organizing lodging and meals, and of course, the conference itself.”
The active involvement of student leaders who constantly want to learn, have enthusiasm for excellent work and are willing to challenge their beliefs is essential. As Kattula notes, a strong student team working in concert is important not only for creating a better event, but a better tomorrow.
“TEDxUNC aims to not only highlight the flow of people, technology, and ideas throughout history, but also how we can redirect this flow as we look towards building the future we want to see.”