A line outside of Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium at William & Mary Feb. 15 stretched beyond the automatic doors of the building, filling the hall with bustling and eager activity. Students with red lanyards, the event’s organizers, checked visitors in rapidly and with beaming smiles, their year of hard work having come to fruition at the 2019 TEDx William & Mary.
For the past seven years, the event has brought TEDx to the university’s campus so that local community members and speakers can share ideas related to a theme. This year, the theme being “Crossroads,” the entirely student-run event of two executive co-chairs and seven committee members worked to identify stories about life’s moments of uncertainty and change.
They selected seven speakers, including multiple members of the William & Mary community, to spread their experience with life’s many “crossroads.”
Alexander Nocks ‘19, one of the event’s executive co-chairs, explained that the selection of the theme came with a desire to both tell a broad story and rally around a shared identity.
“When we were brainstorming themes, ‘crossroads’ stuck out, because it captures the essence of the college experience and of course broader societal themes of the moment too,” he said. “For all the students here, college is just a stopover on the way from somewhere to somewhere else. It’s a dramatic crossroads we’re all experiencing together.”
That collective experience showed as each speaker stepped onto the stage, sharing moments of vulnerability and transformation in their lives — whether W&M Visual Design Coordinator Sophia Ramsey’s discovery of a willingness to fail or Class of 1983 alumna and Associate Rector at St. Martin’s Episcopalian Church Lisa Green’s realization of the power of ‘she’ in her sermons.
The speeches of several William & Mary students also approached the theme with creativity and meaning as they acknowledged the crossroads of college and particular adversities they’d learned to overcome.
Kareem Al-Attar ’21 began his speech with a seemingly lighthearted statement: “I’ve worn the same cologne every day for the past nine years.”
The audience, which met his remark with shared chuckles, soon learned that his cologne was a childhood gift from his father — a father who was forced to leave the United States under complex legal and political circumstances. Al-Attar described the transformation in his understanding of this tragic event; as he began to accept his adversity and share his struggle, he learned to wear his father’s cologne not as a mask to cover his truth, but as a proud representation of his story.
“All these years, I used the cologne as a way to mask my vulnerability — the more nostalgic or nervous I was feeling, I’d put on more,” said Al-Attar. “But as soon as I owned up to my struggle, I owned what I used to hide it. I wear the cologne today because it represents who I am.”
His story was met with uproarious applause from the crowd and shouts of his name from apparent friends and family members, rallying to support him.
The speech of Sydney Moondra ’19 was met with a similar reaction as she shared her experience needing to drop out of William & Mary years before because of PTSD.
She recounted her diagnosis experience, her feelings of self-doubt and the perceived illegitimacy of mental health in her community. She emphasized the profound importance of being heard and understood, imploring her audience to capitalize on the power of social support. She created an organization, Dil to Dil (Hindi for ‘heart to heart’), a public Instagram forum dedicated to eliminating mental health stigma in South Asian communities through conversations and testimonies. She finished her speech with a task for her audience to commit to such conversations.
“I challenge you all: Challenge this idea that sadness is futile and frustration is negativity,” she said. “Listen to your body. Listen to your mind. Speak openly, freely, unabashedly and unapologetically about whatever it is you feel because you never know how a heart to heart can so impactfully save someone’s life.”
For TEDx Executive Co-Chair Grayce Angle ’19, witnessing Moondra and Al-Attar’s performances was especially moving. Leading up to the event, she had worked carefully and extensively with the student speakers to craft their speeches.
“I remember standing in the wings of the stage and listening to them as they hit every piece of advice we had given them — every pause, clever phrase, every movement — and they did everything better than we could have even imagined,” she said. “They absolutely killed it. I was so worried that I would cry and go on stage to introduce the next speaker all teary-eyed.”
The sheer pride Angle expressed in that moment reflected the popular sentiment among organizers and viewers, alike. Visiting Assistant Professor Jackson Sasser, another featured speaker, addressed the remarkability of William & Mary students.
“You heard from Sydney and you heard from Kareem, so you won’t be surprised when I tell you that every day these students remind me why ours is work worth doing,” he said. “They are — you are — horizon-lifting.”
It is to proliferate these horizon-lifting stories and to spread innovative ideas that TEDx William & Mary’s organizers set out to do.
“I believe that TEDx William & Mary adds something unique to our campus — it allows us to lift up members of our community to share new ideas and gives them the solid foundation of the TED brand to help their voices reverberate beyond our campus,” said Angle. “There is nothing more powerful than a person, their honest story and a room full of people ready to listen.”