Former student body president Chris Armstrong admits he considered taking his own life after he was stalked and bullied for being gay by Andrew Shirvell, then an assistant attorney general of the state of Michigan. But thanks to family, friends and a supportive University community, Armstrong said he was not only able to overcome the bullying, but also tap into his potential to spread a message of hope to others suffering from the same abuse.
Armstrong’s speech was one of 20 during the fourth annual TEDxUofM, a student-run, day-long conference based on “ideas worth spreading” that brought 1,300 University students and faculty to the Power Center on Friday. “Untapped_” was this year’s theme: Speakers presented on a range of topics, from the untapped human potential in Detroit to the untapped abilities of a “wannabe rock star” turned anthropologist.
Broken into three sessions — Unexplored, Unleashed and Unveiled — the conference moved swiftly from speaker to speaker. In between sessions, attendees were treated to roundtable discussions on various topics, caffeine-infused cookies and live-music performances.
Armstrong, the last speaker of the day, claimed he didn’t have a solution for stopping bullies, choosing instead to discuss the need for strong community support and resources to prevent bullying. He said it was the responsibility of those in attendance to take what they learned during TEDx and become a resource and support system for someone in pain.
“I survived … I had Michigan; I had friends and family who loved me no matter who I was,” Armstrong said. “But not all kids get to be at the University of Michigan.”
LSA junior Dominique Brooks, one of the student organizers for the event, said the University’s TEDx event — despite its short lifetime — is one of the best known in the country and often acts as precedent for the conference on other campuses.
“It has a lot to do with our innovation,” Brooks said. “We’ve really taken it to the next step; we defy a lot of thought about what college kids would do.”
LSA junior Amanda Sena, another of the event’s organizers, said TEDxUofM is a leader around the country not only because of the diverse speakers it attracts, but also because of the clear innovation in the other aspects of the conference.
“We try to really put a lot of thought into the design,” Sena said. “I think putting so much effort into one event like this really makes it something.”
Sena said the interest in TEDtalks stems from the diversity of the people on campus and their interests inside and outside of the classroom.
“I think TED — what attracts us to it — is just the opportunity to explore a lot of different interests other than what we’re studying ourselves,” she said.
TEDxUofM also allows current students to give speeches. This year, LSA senior Michael Williams, a Detroit native, gave a presentation on the future of his home city and the untapped potential of its people.
In the Unleashed session, Mike Barwis, former director of strength and conditioning for the Athletics Department, talked about the untapped potential of physical therapy. In an emotional moment, two men Barwis had worked with walked onstage: Both had been paralyzed but can now walk.
Filmic, a student-led film production club at the University, invited students to share their hopes and passions, which they compiled into a short film that was presented at the end of the conference.
Though the momentum of some presentations was interrupted because of technical difficulties, LSA freshman Nabiha Hashmi said the most interesting part of the conference was the break-out lunch sessions, during which attendees participated in round-table discussions on topics ranging from sustainability to health inequalities.
“I just wanted to see what would bring so many people together,” Hashmi said. “It’s been so cool to talk to so many different people about things I didn’t even know about.”
Rackham student Travis Martin was in awe of the power of the event.
“I didn’t realize this would be such a big deal.”