If Trevor Noah could have any wish granted, he would not wish for more money, success or even more wishes.
Instead, he told University of Michigan students that he would wish for something “crazy.”
“I wish that the world would have this weird system where at any time, in any place, you could be snapped out of your body and you’d have to live in somebody else’s for an indeterminate period of time,” Noah said. “I wonder how they would treat (other) people knowing that they might be them on any given day.”
Noah, a 38-year-old South African comedian and host of The Daily Show, presented life advice — and humor, of course — to U-M engineering students while talking about his 2016 autobiography “Born a Crime.” He gave the equivalent of an intimate “fireside chat” from the stage of a packed Hill Auditorium and returned to Hill after sunset to perform stand-up. The comedy show was a stop on his ongoing “Back to Abnormal” world tour and marked the first time Noah has appeared live at the University.
Following the fireside chat, which was exclusively for engineering students, Noah hosted a comedy show at the Hill Auditorium that drew over 3,000 attendees, of which over 1,100 were U-M students. The show featured a comedic take on U.S. and U.K politics, the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”
Engineering freshmen in 2021 and 2022 were asked to read Noah’s “Born a Crime” as a part of the Common Reading Experience program before stepping foot on campus and starting their first courses. Since 2013, the program was created to give new students an easy way to start conversations with their peers. The literary selection has changed from year to year, but for the past two summers, engineering students have started their time as Wolverines by reading Noah’s book about growing up in South Africa during apartheid.
Friday’s talk was specifically reserved for engineering students who filled up the main floor and mezzanine of Hill Auditorium — over 2,000 seats total. At the talk, Alec D. Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic dean of engineering, introduced Sita Syal, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who led the conversation with Noah.
Gallimore spoke to the crowd about why the College of Engineering wanted to bring Noah to campus to talk to students. He mentioned that Noah speaks eight different languages — English, Xhosa, Zulu, Tsonga, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Afrikaans and German — and was listed as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2018.
“The Common Reading Experience creates an opportunity for class bonding and thought-provoking discussions even before the students arrive on campus,” Gallimore said. “Our aim is to compliment our technical excellence with insights from other disciplines such as the humanities and the arts and broaden the understanding of equity as we cultivate the global perspective we call this comprehensive approach to our work: People-first Engineering.”
Syal asked how Noah strikes a balance between humor and social sensitivity when discussing controversial topics in his comedy routines. Noah said he uses comedy to overcome the day-to-day challenges that come with “being human” and to contextualize his individually lived experiences.
“I try to take advantage of the paradox of being human,” Noah said. “The paradox of being human is being able to be at a party with your friends while your grandfather is sick in the hospital. Existing in the honesty of that paradox is oftentimes what helps me strike a balance (in comedy).”
Syal also asked Noah about what he thinks engineers, specifically, can do to advocate for a more inclusive and equitable world. Noah advised students to tackle larger structural problems that exist in society.
“We get so caught up in the individual problems that we don’t realize that there is a structural failure,” Noah said. “Engineering is about how each part affects the other.”
Engineering junior Natalie Hazapis attended both Noah’s talk and his comedy performance. She said Noah’s “fireside chat” in particular made her feel inspired about the positive social impact she can have on her community as an engineer in the future.
“Hearing Trevor Noah talk about his experiences and perspectives was inspiring and thought-provoking,” Hazapis said. “The chat left me thinking about the value of differing perspectives especially as it pertains to engineering. I left feeling motivated to do meaningful work with my degree and eager to expose myself to new cultures.”
Engineering sophomore Vijaya Kukutla was not able to get tickets to the comedy show in the evening, but she had the opportunity to hear Noah speak at the engineering-exclusive talk earlier in the day. She said reading “Born a Crime” before starting her freshman year last fall was her first introduction to Noah, and the book made her think about the responsibility engineers have to make the world a better place than they found it.
“Engineering has a lot of power in it and can change people’s lives for the better,” Kukutla said. “I think the underlying message in what he was saying was to have empathy for people.”
The show ended with a thunderous standing ovation for Noah. He concluded the talk by offering some advice to the students in regards to graduating college and entering the professional world.
“If you base your life on any moment and results, then your choice is always going to be dependent on how it turns out,” Noah said. “(When you say) if this happens I’ll be happy, it means that if it doesn’t happen on the other hand you won’t be happy … But when you remember that the journey is what you should find a passion for, you’ll be happy.”
Daily News Editors Roni Kane and Shannon Stocking can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.