Bringing TEDx to Lowell: The Full Story

A few months ago I wrote a short piece about why we started the Honors Ambassador Program (HAP) at UMass Lowell. The idea was fairly focused back then– we wanted to reach out to some of the top students in the area and have a conversation about UMass Lowell. We wanted to show them how the Honors Program (now College) rivaled the top programs in the state for a significantly more reasonable price.

It didn’t take long after forming the team that we realized that we had picked some of the most ambitious, innovative, collaborative, and visionary students at the school, leading us to believe we could do a lot more than we had originally planned.

Yes, it was a struggle to launch some of our programs out of nowhere– the issues were essentially those of a brand-new startup. But the great thing was, through the struggles we were able to change some very committed minds and have fun doing it. The Welcome Day After Party for Honors was widely considered a success and we’ve been asked to run it again for a much larger audience. Fledge (a mentoring program) and the Masquerave (dance party) were not quite as successful or effective. The Ideas Worth Spreading course was a mixed bag– a good idea, a good group, questionable execution. As we excelled at some projects and didn’t do well on others, a more cohesive vision for HAP began to emerge.

Ideas Worth Spreading

Ideas Worth Spreading was an Honors Seminar course with one TED-like speech per week, given by a student in the class and discussed at length afterwards. It was put together by the Honors Ambassador Program’s Academic Team. Honors Director James Canning and IWS Professor Greg DeLaurier had agreed that we’d organize a TED-like symposium at the end of December 2013 as a class project (in addition to the weekly speeches). The Ideas Worth Celebrating Symposium planning went fairly well and we got in touch with a variety of local speakers, but it soon became clear that December would be way too early for a successful event. Meghan Burke, a HAP co-founder, had the idea of dismantling IWC Symposium and instead applying for a TEDx license, and after waiting an abnormally long time (some TEDx license changes over holiday break), we got the license.

The Ideal Place and Time

Though TEDxLowell seemed like a natural progression of our prior activities, there was a great deal of thought and consideration in deciding to bring TEDx to Lowell. The city is obviously a historical icon, so much so that a friend of mine from Baton Rouge surprised me with his knowledge of its history. All around us are artifacts of that booming industrial past. On the other hand, the city is undergoing a reemergence of growth and culture in several areas– there are a lot of organizations that have popped up in the very recent past that are doing great work and have great ideas to be shared.

Though many of us came from other nearby towns, we strongly identify with the city. For me personally, both of my parents grew up here and my Aunt Audrey played a huge role in the National Park Service and the production of the Folk Festival. Another Honors Ambassador, Alyssa Piper, is currently heading up an organization called Transform Mill City, which gathers many Lowell voices together to make positive change in the culture and reputation of the city. These stories, among many others, led us to believe that Lowell is a hub for cultural, entrepreneurial, and innovative work. Pair that with our passion (almost obsession) for TED and Mill City became an ideal place for TEDx, whose focus is the sharing of ideas. The sharing of Lowell’s new ideas will be one of the valuable themes in the first annual TEDx Lowell.

TEDxLowell

We took a look at several different venues around town but UTEC was the unanimous vote. The location is central, the theatre is beautifully restored, and the staff is helpful and prompt. UTEC is doing a lot of great things lately and they have quite a few friends all over the city, and we couldn’t be more excited to partner with them. We also quickly connected with Lowell Telecommunications Corporation– who has been already interested in TEDx before we announced it– to handle the filming and sound. We’re confident that our footage will be TED.com quality, so we can get a few talks on the site.

In the one week that the event has been public, we’ve gotten a flood of speaker applications in addition to the people we had already reached out to. The crowd is diverse– from technical entrepreneurship to the medical field to art, from young to old, both local and global. There is no doubt that we can and will fill the conference with amazing people doing amazing things and make TEDxLowell a success.

Refocusing Our Mission

When we originally proposed the idea of the Honors Ambassador Program to UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan and Honors Director James Canning, the idea was that we would work to better the public’s knowledge of our Honors Program and other emerging academic programs, specifically to high school students who were very high achieving. We wanted to show them that many of the schools that were traditionally chosen among that segment offered nothing more than UMass Lowell (other than $30,000 more in cost per year), and often actually offered worse programs than the UMass Lowell equivalent. We heard early that in a few years, UMass Lowell would push to make their Honors Program a College on par with Amherst’s, but the numbers would need to be higher than their current levels. Our Welcome Day After Party for Honors was a huge effort to have these student-to-student conversations, and it played a large role in more than doubling the amount of Honors Freshman here this past Fall. Just last week, the University announced that the Honors College was approved, much earlier than originally planned.

As the Honors Ambassador Program has grown in numbers, projects, reach, and quality, we’ve realized that we can both continue to serve our previous mission of “Working to advance, broaden, and shape the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Honors College.” Now that we run courses, mentor freshmen, hold events for prospective students, converse with alumni, and most recently, organize TEDxLowell, we have to rethink what we’re striving for. This is what we’ve come up with:

The Honors Ambassador Program at UMass Lowell is an entrepreneurial student-run organization at the University of Massachusetts Lowell dedicated to promoting and advancing high-value educational experiences at the University, in its new Honors College, and around Lowell. The program holds events for prospective students, creates new courses and conferences, leads mentorship programs, and interacts with community organizations.

Yes, it’s broad and it’s somewhat vague. But when we think about what it means or what activities contribute to “high-value educational experiences”, it’s both focused enough to guide us and broad enough to keep our freedom.

Our Philosophy

We’ve said a little bit on our philosophy before, but there are a few really neat lessons coming out of our efforts and I think that our constant introspection helps us move incredibly quickly, getting things done in a fraction of the expected time event with students who study full-time and work many hours. And though we’re not a tech company, we think there’s a lot to be learned from their practices.

The way we operate is really about these points:

1. Recruit the best

We make sure that everyone we work with is a committed A player. It’s easier not to bring someone one than ask them to leave later when things aren’t working out.

2. Give talented people freedom

When you’ve got great people around, give them freedom. Freedom to try, to fail, to propose crazy ideas, to use their connections, etc. It’s amazing what they come up with.

3. Iterate quickly

When things don’t work, quickly figure out why and try something else. We’re not afraid to rip down our most established ideas and assumptions.

Wrapping it up

So that’s the story! we’re pretty excited about TEDxLowell (which– spoiler alert– we’re planning on doing annually) and we’re pretty enthusiastic about some of the other projects we have planned. Definitely check in once in a while to see what we’re up to.

www.umlhonors.com
www.tedxlowell.com