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TEDxConnecticutCollege inspires students to 'rethink progress'

In a single afternoon, members of the Connecticut College community grappled with war and peace, a cure for cancer, stereotypes of women, the future of cities, sustainable communities and cult religions, all in the name of "Rethinking Progress." That was the theme for TEDxConnecticutCollege, a day-long conference of live talks and presentations that took place on campus April 14.

TEDx events are independently organized spinoffs of the nationally popular TED Conference that invites industry leaders and thinkers from around the world to speak about "ideas worth spreading." TED, the nonprofit organization, provides general guidance for the TEDx program but leaves the planning and execution of TEDx events to their organizers - in the case of Connecticut College, the students.

"I can honestly say that there hasn't been an event yet that has made me more proud of our students here," said sociology professor Afshan Jafar, who spoke at the event about the power of language in relation to societal views of women. "TEDx energized our student body, it made them proud and it certainly gave them plenty to talk about."

The process of bringing TEDx to Connecticut College began more than a year ago, when Aditya Harnal '13 went to a business conference in Texas and started chatting with a student who founded TEDxUChicago. His interest piqued, Harnal started the TEDx application process for Connecticut College.

"They ask what your motivations are, what you hope to achieve, what themes you're considering," said Harnal. "It's sort of like an application to college."

A formal group of interested students began to coalesce the spring of 2011. These student organizers received permission from TED to organize the event after submitting their proposal and list of speakers. The conference ultimately featured a total of 12 speakers from academia, the arts, business, science research and medicine. Each one was allotted 18 minutes to expound upon an idea, project or event related to the theme.

The College's own Larry Vogel, professor of philosophy, opened the conference with a review of the evolution of progress, comparing cyclical views to linear post-enlightenment views. Cancer researcher Ehsan Sarafraz-Yazdl spoke about the progression of cancer treatment and the revolutionary potential of a new targeted therapy, while architect Daniel Winey, the father of a freshman, came from Shanghai to propose breaking the boundaries between cities and structures by building sustainable skyscrapers.

Other presenters included extreme sports photographer Keoki Flagg '87, sustainable food entrepreneur David Barber '88, a non-verbal theater group called Overground Movement, filmmaker Ayda Erbal and Eugene Gallagher, the Rosemary Park Professor of Religious Studies at Connecticut College.

Breaks for lunch and snacks in between the talks allowed the speakers and audience members to gather in sunny Castle Court to discuss the various ideas in small groups. "The power of these ideas can inspire people to have great enthusiasm about the things they do while they're at Conn, while they're a physical part of the College," Barber said.

The organizers plan to make TEDxConnecticutCollege an annual tradition. They are intent on maintaining the event's organic, independent and entirely student-run structure and have already started planning for next year's event.

"This will be the annual event that brings our whole community together for an entertaining and intellectually stimulating experience," said Jafar, "where students, professors, staff, families, friends all come to take part in an event that symbolizes the best of Connecticut College."

April 27, 2012