The Ford Center will be the stage this weekend for the third annual TEDxUniversityofMississippi event on Feb. 3 at 1 p.m., and the opening speaker might stand a little shorter than the others, but her talk will stand out.
Elsie Andre, an eighth-grader at Lafayette Middle School, will be the youngest person to ever speak at TEDxUniversityofMississippi.
Andre’s talk will be about the idea of traveling and meeting others in order to broaden one’s horizon, inspired by her own experiences when she lived in Africa with her family. She will describe how traveling allows people the opportunity to meet, understand and empathize with others from different cultural backgrounds, which can often lead to “inspiration and creative breakthroughs.”
She was selected after judges saw her TED Talk titled “Travel to Creativity” in Lafayette Middle School’s inaugural TED-Ed conference last May. Lafayette Middle School is the first school-level organization in the state to be officially certified as a TED chapter.
TED, an acronym for technology, entertainment and design, is an organization dedicated to spreading knowledge and the exchange of ideas. TED Talks occur all over the globe, and independently organized TED Talks, like the University of Mississippi’s, are denoted as TEDx events.
Junior Ole Miss student Mary Scott Polk is a member of the speaking committee, which picks the speakers and serves as the point of contact between speakers and the TED committee. The speaking committee has interacted with Andre several times during the past year to give her feedback and help her with transitions and her overall presentation. Polk spoke highly of Elsie and said her talk ties in perfectly with the theme of TEDxUniversityofMississippi this year, which is “MomentUM – a celebration of old ideas with new places.”
“Elsie is the greatest. I think she is very excited, and you can tell when she talks how truly passionate she is about her topic. Her talk is valuable to all ages,” Polk said. “She has remarkable insight from living in East Africa, and I am very excited to watch her shine. Public speaking is an important tool in every day, and as a TEDx organization, we are very happy to help foster that experience for her.”
Junior Ole Miss student William Tribble is the director of the speaking committee and said Elsie has prepared a talk that is on-par with that of the adult speakers.
“This event is about showcasing the best of our state. We can’t do that genuinely if we don’t acknowledge the best of our future,” Tribble said. “Elsie is a rockstar, and we have simply provided her with as many resources to succeed as possible.”
The TED club at Lafayette Middle School was started after student teacher Shelby Knighten, who had previously worked with TEDxUniversityofMississippi during his time at Ole Miss, brought the idea to teacher Katie Szabo. Szabo and her colleague, seventh-grade English teacher Elisa Bryant, who had already been “tossing around club ideas,” formed the club. After the initial excitement of the first meeting died down, dedicated students kept showing up week after week.
“We decided from the very beginning to work with TEDxUniversityofMIssissippi,” Bryant said. “I’m not sure who came up with the idea for the TEDx event to be a contest, but it was a great incentive for our student speakers.”
Elsie was Bryant’s student last year in her English class and Bryant said she has a unique experience of the world for someone her age.
“Elsie continually showed creativity and excellent communication skills,” Bryant said. “She’s a very bright student. Her talk can really help others her age expand their thinking and view of the world.”
Bryant said they started the club because Knighten wanted to carry out the vision of TEDxUniversityofMississippi organizer Marvin King of implementing TED-Ed clubs across the state of Mississippi.
“TED-Ed has really helped students feel like they have a voice and that what they have to say is important. We have seen students overcome fears and build their overall self-esteem through giving a TED Talk,” Bryant said. “We know that TED-Ed is making a lasting impact not only on the audience who get to hear the amazing ideas but on the speakers’ lives, as well.”
King, professor of political science and African-American studies at Ole Miss, agreed that TED-Ed affects young students’ confidence, which in turn, can positively affect other areas of their lives.
“Public speaking is a great skill for anybody, especially young students, and the format of TED is especially well-suited because the talks are short. Eight to 10 minutes is long but not impossible,” King said. “Once they master something like this, they become more confident in general, and that can translate into better academic performance.”
King wanted to implement a TED-Ed program in Mississippi once he realized the community was lacking one, and he is hoping to create more.
“We’re super excited to have Elsie,” he said. “She has put in a lot of work.”
Shelby Knighten, who pioneered the TED-Ed event at Lafayette Middle School, is thrilled to see the project come to fruition in Elsie. He said he will not soon forget the sight of his students’ first moments onstage before a packed house, especially given that some of them never believed they had the ability to shine as public speakers.
“TED-Ed proved to me that seventh- and eighth-graders do indeed have – as TED’s mantra goes – ‘ideas worth spreading,’ and Saturday, we will hear just one of those outstanding ideas from our very own Elsie,” Knighten said. “As one of her former teachers, I couldn’t be prouder.”