Students Explore Identity Struggles at TEDxJHU

The student-run organization, TEDxJHU, held its annual fall salon event on Wednesday. The event, titled “Postscript” featured three student speakers.

A postscript is an afterthought, written after a letter is complete. Junior Cecilia Bao, a co-curator of the event, explained that similarity, the speakers shared parting thoughts as they finish the “letters” of their Hopkins undergraduate years.

“The idea is to have students who are about to graduate reflect on their journeys at Hopkins and share key takeaways,” Bao said.

According to junior Ruchit Patel, who is also a co-curator of TEDxJHU, this year’s salon event was directed toward the entire Hopkins community, whereas salon events in previous years were catered to freshman.

Students interested in speaking at this event first had to submit a video previewing their talk. Hopkins students voted on the submissions, and the final decision then came down to the executive board.

Sophomore Archita Goyal was drawn to the event after watching the video submissions.

“When I saw the videos, I knew that it was important to listen to what the speakers had to say, and I appreciated the messages that they were relaying to us,” Goyal said.

Graduate student Tyler Pugeda spoke at the event. Pugeda, who is deaf, went on stage with his American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. He explained that a video of him giving his talk would play on the projector while he signed his speech, making it accessible to the international deaf community.

“I am playing a video of me speaking, because I want to give you access to the emotions of my speech,” Pugeda said.

Patel spoke to the unusual presentation of Pugeda’s speech. It was the first time that TEDxJHU hosted a speaker who is deaf. According to Patel, it was a challenge to find a way to keep the audience engaged while being careful not to dilute the strength of Pugeda’s message.

“We were questioning how we can keep the audience engaged while giving Tyler an opportunity that he hasn’t been given in the past. The tech team did an amazing job putting it all together,” Patel said.

Pugeda’s family first discovered that he was deaf when he was two. Since then, he explained, he has been on a journey to grow into his own identity.

“Many people are under the false impression that deaf people cannot lead happy lives because of the barriers that we face. Therefore, I received cochlear implants when I was four so that I could be included in the world of sound,” Pugeda said.

According to Pugeda, learning ASL led to a vast improvement in his learning and reasoning abilities. From a young age, he had the dream of becoming a doctor.

For Pugeda, the road to Hopkins was difficult because of instances where his needs as a deaf student were not accommodated. He explained how one of his teachers refused to wear a microphone so that his interpreter could hear the lecture. In high school, because of difficulties with his interpreter, he was not able to follow lectures in AP Biology.

“Because I lost confidence in my abilities, I made the very difficult decision to drop out of AP Biology in the middle of the year. I struggled with the feeling that I could never be intellectually equal to my hearing peers,” Pugeda said.

His confidence was restored when he enrolled in California State University, Northridge which has a large deaf student population. Pugeda described this transition as a shock because he was able to make friends with people who were deaf and was able to express his frustrations in ASL, learning to find forgiveness for those who treated him badly in high school.

“They were simply misinformed about the deaf community. I find that education and kindness, when combined, is the best approach to correct wrong intentions in the hearing community,” Pugeda said.

Pugeda’s determination to become a doctor returned, and he applied to Hopkins. By shadowing doctors, he learned how to communicate with patients through different mediums. Pugeda explained that he refused to let the lack of deaf doctors deter him from his plans.

Senior Karissa Avignon was touched by Pugeda’s speech. She explained that she has recently been reading and learning more about the deaf community and, for this reason, found Pugeda’s talk particularly interesting.

“It was inspiring that he found the service at Hopkins to be accessible. His overall motivation to be a doctor is inspiring,” Avignon said.

Next, junior Kendall Free spoke about her identity as a black woman during her talk.

“I’m from Arizona – a state with a black population that’s somewhere around three percent, and compared to my hometown, Hopkins is very diverse,” Free said.

Free pointed out, however, that her ethnic background as the daughter of a white father and black mother was different than that of her black peers, who were largely first- or second-generation immigrants. Free, excited by the new cultures surrounding her at Hopkins, decided to attend an African Students Association (ASA) meeting.

“The crowd started erupting into cheers whenever people from the same countries that were called out were able to recognize their home countries as well. It was such a special moment for me because I had never seen such an unbridled expression of joy for diversity in the black community,” Free said. “Then it was my turn, I said, ‘Hi my name is Kendall, and I’m from Arizona.’ And there was some polite applause, but it was nowhere near the volume that was given to other students.”

Free went on to reflect that she initially had conflicting feelings about joining the group.

“Why couldn’t I just be happy to be in a room with so many black students?” Free asked. “I felt jealous of students who had a home country to think of and relate to other students through, and what’s worse was I felt guilty for being jealous. I had no idea how to process these feelings.”

Free added that getting involved with the Black Student Union (BSU) helped her understand why she felt jealous following the ASA meeting.

“I realized that there was a very immediate identity that I had completely overlooked – that we are all black students at the Johns Hopkins University, and that’s pretty rare,” Free said. “To a certain extent, we can all relate to not having a lot of people who look like us in class or not seeing people who look like us walk across campus.”

Free, who is a member of the equestrian club, discussed an incident where she was told she wouldn’t be allowed to compete because of her hair.

“That was a shock. I had a feeling that that wasn’t right. At the time I had my hair styled in braids, and they really symbolized me stepping into my identity as a black woman,” Free said. “I was unsure what to do, because in order to compete in this type of riding at the college level, your hair has to fit completely, without any of it showing, underneath a helmet. And with braids that went all the way down my back, that just wasn’t going to happen.”

Free stated that she eventually figured out on her own how to keep her hair up and went on to have a successful competition season.

“To this day I’m not sure why I was told that I couldn’t compete because of my hair, when so many other people saw that that was wrong,” Free said. “Despite this, I was able to develop very deep relationships with my teammates that remains to this day.”

Free ended her talk by emphasizing how the stories she shared during her presentation might benefit others in similar situations down the line.

“Maybe there’s an African-American student at a college that feels isolated the same way I did and can now feel less alone. Even though I’m not African, I can still feel welcome at club meetings for African students. Even though I have braids, I can still feel comfortable at horse shows,” Free said.

Senior Collin English also gave a speech at the event and spoke about the importance of making connections with others during your time at college.

“Share yourself with others, and let them share themselves with you. Life is too short to live it alone,” English said.

English also gave advice about how to find people to connect with while at Hopkins.

“Don’t let chance decide your friends, but find people you love and bring them close,” English said.

Sophomore Sarah Baghdadi was impressed by the speakers’ varied stories and backgrounds.

“It’s great to see that the Hopkins community has such a diverse range of talents and stories,” Baghdadi said.

Patel appreciated the support that TEDxJHU had received from the Hopkins community and commented on the large turnout for the 2018 event.

He further emphasized that the organization is centered on the mission of “Ideas Worth Spreading” that the national TED organization represents.

“We are relatively new on campus; it has only been 5 years since our founding. We have grown exponentially,” Patel said. “No matter what your ideas, background and beliefs are, we want to give you a voice if we feel or you feel that your ideas need to be heard by a broader audience.”

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