Eduardo Diaz-Santana Vazquez ’14 and Ria Mirchandani ’15 were the winners of the TEDxBrownUniversity Student Challenge held Tuesday evening in Metcalf Auditorium. As a lead-up to the TEDxBrownUniversity conference Oct. 20, the Student Challenge was designed to select a student to join the lineup of speakers. Though 14 students signed up for the challenge, 11 took to the floor to deliver a five-minute talk relating to the conference’s theme of “life, learning and liberal education.”
Participants touched on a variety of topics, including environmental crisis and “blast fishing,” a fishing practice that employs dynamite, to convey what a liberal education meant to them. The roughly 60-person audience included a panel of faculty members and students that had been organized to select the winners of the challenge.
Vanessa Ryan, assistant professor of English and faculty coordinator of the TEDxBrownUniversity Organizing Team, said the student challenge was held because it was “essential to get a student perspective as part of the conversation on liberal education.” She said she was excited by students’ enthusiasm, adding that the “support and energy was really felt in the room.”
The panel had originally planned to select one student speaker, but given the success of the challenge and the strength of the participants, it decided to expand the level of student representation, Ryan said. In addition to the two winners, there were also two runner-ups – Herald Science & Research Editor Sahil Luthra ’14 and Faiyad Ahmad ’14 – who will be invited to have their speeches featured on the conference website.
Assistant Professor of Education Tracy Steffes, who was a member of the selection panel, said she was looking for “enthusiasm” and “dynamism” from the students. She said she found the speeches to be “really inspiring” and was struck by the range of perspectives the participants offered through their presentations.
Vazquez, who learned about the student challenge through an event advertised on Facebook, said he has “been a TED fan for a long time.” In his speech, Vazquez talked about how his Mexican and American – “but not Mexican-American” – background taught him to appreciate the value of a liberal education. Like several of his peers, Diaz used a PowerPoint presentation, and he spoke about how a summer experience in Nepal caused him to question the ways in which his identity influenced his interactions with people.
Asking the audience to “reconsider the assumptions (that) you live,” Vazquez said that it was through a liberal arts education that he was able to think about these questions. Only at an institution like Brown could he be a PLME student, an anthropology concentrator and also study French, Vazquez said.
The virtues of a liberal education were also echoed by Mirchandani, a Herald contributing writer, who called herself an “intellectual refugee … seeking asylum and finding solace in Brown’s open curriculum.” In addition to talking about the ways in which a liberal arts college has helped her explore her diverse interests, Mirchandani pointed to a case study from her native city of Bombay to illustrate the necessity of having a broad perspective and the connections between science and humanities.
Both students said they were surprised to learn they had been selected as winners of the challenge but were excited to represent the student body at the conference. The format of the actual conference will be slightly different, with students allowed to speak up to eight minutes. Ryan said the team will be working with the winners to “strengthen their talks” and help them develop their original speeches and ideas.
As the conference is scheduled for Family Weekend, Ryan said she hopes the presence of a student perspective will especially resonate with parents, who often play a key role in students’ education and curriculum decisions. The fact that there was such a positive response to the challenge “reflects the way liberal education is at the core of student experience at Brown,” she said.