An array of visions at TEDxUCR

Lydia Tsou/HIGHLANDER
Lydia Tsou/HIGHLANDER

“We want to be the motivators for action,” explained Russell Cohen Hoffing. He is sitting on the stage in the University Theater, legs dangling from the precipice and swinging back and forth with a boyish energy. Russell is a graduate student in the psychology department. He is also a member of TEDxUCR, a student organization that seeks to bring enlightening and uplifting TED talks to UCR.

Earlier that day, TEDxUCR had just finished the largest TEDx conference it had ever put on, “Kaleidoscope,” with hundreds in the audience and seven speakers uplifting and inspiring the audience. Although it got off to a rocky start, with one of the speakers arriving late and the video crew’s set-up taking more time than anticipated, first speaker Simon Tam took off with a bang with his presentation: “How to Talk with a White Supremacist.” He told the crowd of the time he and his band performed at a maximum-security prison in Oregon with a high proportion of white supremacists. After playing to the audience on a small stage surrounded by concrete walls and wearing garishly orange vests (provided to the band so the security guards knew who not to shoot in the event of a riot), Tam was approached by a swastika-tattooed man so tall he blocked out the sun. He handed Tam a piece of paper. He asked for an autograph — for his daughter. “He wanted to show his daughter that he could change his heart and mind, even if he couldn’t change the ink stained into his skin,” Tam reflected, urging the audience to fight racism through conversations and sincerely listening to other people with differing perspectives.

Two UCR alumni followed. Michael Uy, who spoke of the importance of fostering curiosity and problem-solving skills, emphasized that hacking isn’t the amoral act many people think it is. Hackers, he said, “solve problems we didn’t see with solutions we couldn’t imagine,” describing his efforts to build a hydroponics system and a coffee maker controlled via Wi-Fi. Afterward, Leonardo Mendoza implored listeners to focus on what they have to be thankful for when they’re down, using his near-suicide as an example.

“Joy is the feeling that you get when you appreciate and celebrate your life,” UCR professor and head of theatre, film and digital production Stu Krieger explained to a curious audience. When Krieger was in high school, he developed a condition called colitis, a perforation of the colon that caused him to throw up after eating and bleed when he went to the bathroom. The condition was caused by his profound unhappiness with his life, pressured by friends and family to do something he didn’t want to do and unsure of his future. Sometimes, he felt like dying. “But I also knew I didn’t want to die,” Krieger intoned. “I knew I needed to make a choice. I chose life. I chose joy.” Krieger encouraged the audience to do what brings them joy, explaining how he moved from Hollywood to UCR when he lost the pleasure of screenwriting and discovered the joy of teaching.

At this point, the audience had the opportunity to take a brief break, with some wandering over to the 3-D printers and others seeking comfort on the blankets spread across the nearby lawn. Everywhere, people are chatting, smiling and laughing. Outside the theater are a series of posters, each asking attendees something about themselves. “When was the last time you cried through happiness?” one asks. “Laughing at a silly joke,” one responds. Another: “When I got my student visa to study at UCR.” Yet another: “My homegirl Sarah got her tumor removed.” As I am looking, a student turns to me and we strike up a conversation so swiftly that we lose track of time and have to be ushered back into the theater before the second act begins.

Chuan Qin took to the stage, plucking the strings and sliding the bow across the Chinese erhu. A rhapsody of music filled the air as her head rocked back and forth, letting the flow of the notes carry her through the song. As she finished in a crescendo, trilling her fingers and plucking the strings, she explained that she plays the instrument to reintroduce Chinese immigrants to their traditions. UCR professor Boris Maciejovsky, meanwhile, discussed some of his latest research, including how we are motivated by avoiding loss rather than potential gain, and suggested revamping the way we tackle problems to take advantage of this effect.

Aaron Lai/HIGHLANDER
Aaron Lai/HIGHLANDER

The night was finished amid the audience’s uproar of whoops, claps and hollers for CiCi. “The best advice I ever received was in an elevator in Las Vegas, going down,” she began. As a transgender woman, she was nervous stepping into a public club filled with drunk patrons, but her friend whispered two words into her ear before the doors slid open: “Own it.” CiCi advised her audience to do the same, asking for understanding for others as they try to find themselves and speaking of her own struggles identifying as transgender in today’s world.

No matter the speaker or audience member, throughout the event flowed a feeling of inspiration and common cause. “I thought it was going to be about kaleidoscopes,” Jessica Tovar, a third-year economic-administrative studies major, laughed. But after the conference finished, she found herself realizing that everything had multiple perspectives. When it was announced that one of the speakers would be unable to attend due to his disease, the audience clapped in support — a moment captured on video by the emcee and sent to him as a get-well wish.

TEDxUCR received over 50 presentation proposals from members of the UCR community, but the only factor that went into the selection process was passion. “It’s really just if you’re passionate. If your passion comes across, that’s all you need,” Russell said. Another member of TEDxUCR, second-year psychology major Yo Yo Hong, agreed. “We only planned on six (speakers) but everybody’s was so good!” she said. Next year, TEDxUCR hopes to put on an even bigger conference with more speakers.

Perhaps coincidentally, but perhaps not, the discussion seemed tailor-made for college students trying to find themselves in the world. Mendoza, who I managed to speak with during the lunch break, agreed. “I wanted to talk about something that I believe a lot of college students could relate to,” he said. In an entirely separate conversation, I speak with Paola Solis, a fourth-year anthropology major, who says, “It’s very helpful for people who don’t know what to do — who are lost.”

It is fitting, then, that the theme for the night — kaleidoscope — represented the countless prisms of light that spread out before viewers that night. Russell said that the title was meant to evoke childhood memories and different views and perspectives. Between stories of overcoming hardship, groundbreaking studies and personal tales, everyone who was in attendance left with a new outlook and were perhaps reminded of a much younger self.

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