University News

TEDx discusses liberal education impact

By
Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2012

Katherine Chon ’02  has supported human trafficking victims for more than a decade, and her education at Brown gave her the “skills, confidence and courage” to embrace the unknown in her professional career, she said.
Chon gave one of 11 talks at TEDxBrownUniversity Saturday, a series of lectures by alums, faculty and students related to the subject of “life, learning and a liberal education.”
TEDxBrown, which originally began as a research project between Vanessa Ryan, assistant professor of English, and Kimberly Takahata ’14, was held in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. The event was coordinated by Ryan, Takahata and PhD candidates in English Jessica Tabak and Joel Simundich.
Today is an “interesting and unsettling period for higher education in this country,” said Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron in her opening remarks at the event. “There has never been a time when we needed this kind of conversation more.”
Bergeron said the tough economy has contributed to student concern about how to put their liberal educations to use outside of college.
Alums from a variety of disciplines spoke about how their liberal educations enabled them to succeed in their professional lives. Chon, who gave a talk entitled “Reinventing the Underground Railroad,” concentrated in psychology at Brown and is now the co-founder and president emerita of Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization that combats slavery and human trafficking.
While at Brown, she said she took classes across many disciplines, which sparked her interest in social issues. “I credit the full spectrum of that education to what I’m doing now,” she said.
Chon’s interest in modern slavery came about, she said, after she came across an article in the Providence Journal during her junior year, which detailed a local human trafficking case. She said she was shocked that these events were happening “in the modern day” and “less than two miles” from campus.
Following graduation, Chon moved with Polaris Project co-founder Derek Ellerman ’02 to Washington, D.C., where they began a crisis hotline for victims of human trafficking. The hotline operates in more than 120 languages and has received approximately 60,000 calls in the last four to five years, Chon said.
She cited an example of a schoolteacher who called the hotline to voice concern about two teenage girls in her class who had disappeared. Polaris Project was able to track and aid the girls in South Carolina, where they were being trafficked as sex slaves. “We worked our modern version of the Underground Railroad network, and action happened,” Chon said.
Nawal Nour ’88, whose talk was entitled “Development Studies and International Relations: How Do They Lead to Obstetrics?” used a metaphor of the White Nile and the Blue Nile, the two major tributaries of the Nile River, to represent her divergent interests in addressing both medical issues – particularly female genital cutting – and social justice while at Brown.
Nour emphasized how the benefits of a liberal education allowed her to explore and bridge her two interests. As the two tributaries eventually merge into the Nile River, Nour has managed to combine her interests. She is an obstetrician/gynecologist and the founder and director of the African Women’s Health Center, which aids women in Boston who have undergone female genital cutting.
Other speakers included Brad Simpson ’95, a co-producer of Academy Award-nominated Far From Heaven and associate producer of Academy Award-winning Boys Don’t Cry, and Ari Matusiak ’99, executive director of the White House Business Council and co-founder of Young Invincibles, an organization designed to help young Americans voice their ideas about United States policy.
Simpson’s talk, “Zombies, Drag Queens, Glam Rockers and Wimpy Kids (Or What I Did with my Liberal Arts Degree),” detailed the connection between storytelling and critical thinking that his education helped cultivate, he said.
“You can do anything with these degrees,” Simpson said.
Matusiak credited his multicultural background with helping him become comfortable with the “unknown, the uncertain and the unfamiliar,” which he identified as a hallmark of a liberal education.
“Liberal education is not held in sole custody by venerable institutions like this one,” Matusiak said. “It is a lifelong endeavor.”
The first step in organizing the event was identifying alums who could “tell a story,” Takahata said. Ryan and Takahata reached out to department heads for suggestions of alums, eventually compiling a list of more than 500 names, she added.
The final selection process involved putting together a group who represented a broad range of fields, degrees and time spent in the workforce, Takahata said. “It was a lot of looking at videos,” she said, “to see who could tell a story in front of live audiences.”
Tabak, who had previously worked as a teaching assistant for Ryan, joined the project over the summer. “I thought it was fantastic,” she said.
TEDx events are coordinated independently of TEDTalks. The University already had an independent TED license from TEDxBrown 2011, Takahata said, an event that included only faculty speakers.
In addition to making TEDxBrown 2012 speakers primarily alums, Ryan and Takahata also implemented a student speaker component. “We felt we needed the student voice in order to make it more holistic,” Takahata said.
The TEDxBrown Student Challenge was held Oct. 2. Eleven students auditioned with five-minute talks concerning the value of a liberal education. Ria Mirchandani ’15 and Eduardo Diaz-Santana Vazquez ’14 were chosen as the winners, though Vazquez was not able to present at the event.
Takahata said she and Ryan received messages from students after the event, crediting the event with reaffirming their confidence in p
ursuing a liberal arts education.
“You don’t have to go to college – you could do a start-up, you could intern somewhere. If those choices are so available and so exciting, then why would you choose to come to college in the first place?” Takahata said, noting that TEDxBrown was intended to validate college education and generate a discussion about the values of pursuing the liberal education track.
“We did what we wanted to do,” Takahata added. “I feel like in terms of making students understand that there is a conversation, and there is a potential answer to that conversation, we accomplished that.”