by Geoff Gehman ’80
Christopher Caine ’78 and Yue “Luna” Yuan ’12 are divided by a generation and united by a vision to unite generations. They envision a world more personal and universal, where social media produces social entrepreneurs, and solar power generates humanitarian energy.
Yuan and Caine united in March during the second annual student-run TEDxLaf conference, “Redefining We.” Organized by Yuan and other members of the College’s Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Club, the six-hour event extended an international network of conversations promoting global citizenship. Nearly 100 students gathered in Kirby Hall to share a laboratory of changing identities through ideas.
The conference was opened by Caine, founding president/CEO of Mercator XXI, LLC, a global business services corporation, and sponsor of the Caine Scholars Award for Global Leadership, Business, and Policy. He participated because he wanted to attend his first TED event, spread the gospel of customized community, and support Yuan, who impressed him during a 2011 Mercator-sponsored program in social entrepreneurship.
Set to a thumping dance-club beat, Caine’s blitzkrieg of 2011 poll results ranged from the mildly surprising (one of eight married couples in the U.S. met via social media) to the startling (if Facebook were a country, it would have the third-largest population). Behind these statistics was a bold message. Sharing personal data through social media, said Caine, is “the new oil” that will drive a new kind of economy. Owning this data can prevent communication conglomerates from bundling it without the owners’ permission.
Caine’s matrix was a spacier version of his favorite Lafayette class, Political Sociology, where the only text was “Politics as a Vocation,” an essay by sociologist-economist Max Weber. The course, taught by Professor Howard Schneiderman, “provoked us to think horizontally and vertically,” said Caine. “It was a syllabus on Red Bull.”
TEDxLaf featured another alumnus with a turbocharged mission. Thomas Loughlin ’83, executive director of American Society of Mechanical Engineers and supporter of Engineers Without Borders, discussed how commercial industry can aid individual industry. Engineering for Change, a program he helped launch in 2011, helps developing countries with such simple, profound instruments as a solar-powered cooking stove.
Niccole Rivero ’12, an international affairs major, recalled her four life-changing months observing the aftermath of civil war in Africa. She spent time in a Rwanda community where genocide widows raise children and crops with the wives of their husbands’ killers. “Peace is more important than power,” said Rivero, president of the student chapter of Amnesty International. “It shouldn’t take genocide to learn that love is the answer.”
Improving human nature through nature is a mission of Yuan, a mechanical engineering/policy studies major from Wuhan, China. Her global-citizenship career began during a high-school exchange program with Japanese peers. It expanded during a 2010 think tank in Germany, where she compared “global governance” with China’s new foreign policy, “harmonious world.” It expanded yet again during last summer’s session in innovative leadership organized by Caine and Mercator, which is based in the District of Columbia and Cairo. American-Egyptian student teams created and pitched sustainable financial plans to venture capitalists in Egypt and municipal leaders in Easton.
Yuan made significant changes to the 2012 TEDxLaf, introducing a stronger theme with more off-campus guests and working with the Alumni Association to bring in more alumni speakers. Ali Darwish, an Egyptian student she met during the summer, gave a lively eyewitness account of last spring’s democratic revolution in his homeland. Speaking via Skype, he recalled how the “unexpected silent middle-class minority” used virtual and actual protests to force President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 oppressive years. According to Darwish, the news of Mubarak stepping down was greeted with wild enthusiasm, as if Egypt had won the World Cup.
“Enlightening and eye-opening,” said Chrispin Otondi ’13, a neuroscience science major and vice president of International Students Association. He hosted an interim-session visit to his native Kenya. “I wanted to show that we don’t all walk around barefoot, that we don’t all keep animals at the airport,” he said, “that people are just people anywhere.”
In the video lecture “A Radical Experiment in Empathy,” Sam Richards, a popular sociology professor at Penn State with the splashy gestures and leaping imagination of a motivational speaker, encouraged empathy by imagining an America run by the Chinese and a Middle East where Americans meet Muslims persecuted by Americans. Walk an inch in the shoes of these misunderstood people, said Richards, and you can walk a mile in the shoes of more familiar, less annoying folks—like the Sunday driver who hogs the passing lane.
TEDxLaf also revolved around radical experiments in health. Arthur Chandler, a visionary hospital administrator in Kingston, N.Y., described the impact of the O+ Festival, where actors, muralists, and other artists are paid with root canals, EKGs, and other health care services they can’t afford. The festival, which has included Lafayette volunteers, could one day include a heart-repair device being developed by Michael Whitman ’82, founding CEO of Micro Interventional Devices. Permaseal consists of six polymer anchors that create an accessible opening for such structural procedures as transcatheter aortic valve implants. Creating an internal window, noted Whitman, is far less invasive than cracking open a chest or pumping blood from the body.
Strengthening emotional health spurs Anthony Badillo ’07, who compared his career as a Wall Street financial analyst to a “cancer.” “It’s not that I felt I didn’t matter,” he said. “It’s just that I felt I was replaceable.” He began changing tracks after he saw the documentary I Am, the story of a successful, materialistic film director who went on a global spiritual pilgrimage after recovering from a bicycle accident.
Badillo is committed to Teach for America, which hires recent college graduates settings. Like Whitman, Caine, he urged students to blend passion “Do it with such ferocity that you’re nuts,” he said. “Because crazy enough to think they can change the world — do.”
The conference made TEDxLaf team member Nevena Popovic ’14 finally understand the adage that world change begins with individual change. It’s an important message for her native Serbia, which has been torn by ethnic war. “People are tired of conflict in Serbia,” said the biochemistry and French major. “They don’t want to repeat mistakes; they want to turn mistakes into lessons.”
Alumni participants were impressed as well. Loughlin plans to spend more time speaking on ethical engineering at Lafayette and recruiting undergraduates and graduates to serve his mechanical-engineering society. Caine admired the passion and vision of the student organizers. “Citizenship historically is a right granted by the nationstate,” he said. “Yet what we saw that day is part of a remarkable phenomenon, a deeper concept that can be organized by Facebook, or the United Nations hunger initiative, or a Gates Foundation Haiti relief fund.”
Yuan was pleased that the conference inspired students to volunteer for next year’s event. After graduation she plans to work for KDC Solar LLC, Bedminster, N.J., a commercial solar-power supplier run by Harold Kamine ’78, a member of Lafayette’s Board of Trustees. Better access to better energy, she believes, can benefit every country, every generation, every every species.