Real Talk From LCUSD Students With Big Ideas

Ryan Chen let nearly 100 people in on a little secret. In times of doubt, he has a mantra: “What Would George Clooney Do?”
In the La Cañada High School auditorium, the sophomore was holding court on the power of confidence — or even faking confidence — by considering how the charismatic actor might handle a situation.
Chen’s delivery — surely self-assured — was a fitting start to Sunday’s TEDxLCHS event, titled “Dare Mighty Things,” at which 10 La Cañada Unified School District students and two musical outfits confidently offered listeners a cornucopia of food for thought.
The nearly three-hour experience was an independently organized version of the TED Talks series, a popular video podcast featuring brief presentations and performances by some of the world’s leading thinkers and doers. LCHS’ version of the event debuted in 2014, inspired by a project in the class of Jamie Lewsadder, an English teacher turned technology director.
This year, teens took to the stage to share well-meaning advice drawn from their own recent experiences and epiphanies, while the younger participants all found the courage to ask something from the audience.
Seventh-grader Ray Wipfli returned to the scene where, two years ago, he broke news about this plans for delivering soccer gear to kids in Uganda. He offered an update: Not only had hundreds of pounds of athletic gear reached the Ugandan youth, but he’s raised upward of $70,000 for the youth in Mpigi, Uganda, through his nonprofit, Ray United FC.
Nadia Chung, 12, introduced the audience to her foundation, Educational Cultural Exchange, which she described as a place for students to teach students about culture, starting with a summer camp in Winslow, Ariz.
Alex Cheng, also a 6th-grader, pleaded with the crowd to take food allergies seriously, and for them to encourage others to do the same. “I’m just here to say it’s not a joke,” said Cheng, who listed his food allergies as including nuts, shellfish, milk, eggs and soy, all of which he characterized as “lethal weapons that can cause my death.”
Esme Salzman didn’t ask for funding but for folks to donate some time to the website wildcamgorongosa.org, where they can help identify photos of animals to help the conservation efforts of biologists in Africa. “If everyone in this room did 1,000 identifications, we would be roughly one-fourth of the way there, and if you don’t want to do that many, I suggest you tell your friends, because if 1,000 people made just 410 identifications, we would reach our goal,” said Salzman, who holds the title as the site’s top identifier, with more than 3,000 IDs.
The elementary-school-aged speakers were plucked from among the district’s 160 GATE participants, all of whom participated in that program’s version of TED talks. The top 10 students from each elementary site were judged by a panel of eight parents, and those selected to speak Sunday were among the top five of all GATE participants.
The big kids, meanwhile, were chosen after submitting either an audition video or a written submission.
Miles Yun talked about what he’d learned from his work reprogramming cells, and it had to do with more than synthetic biology. His biggest takeaway, he said, was the value of being open-minded and bold enough to pursue new ideas. “High school students rarely have extracurricular activities that have a direct and notable impact on the world,” he said, “and we were able to do just that … changing DNA within a cell, [which took] recognizing small things and seeing it from a difft point of view, not conceding to what we think as set in stone.”
Braden Oh, who helped organize the event, spoke of what he and his team of high-schoolers currently competing in NASA’s CubeQuest Challenge have learned. Again, it wasn’t only the science. By valuing input from every person on the team, Oh, said, “we built something more than a team. We built a community of students who are excited to be a part of something, a team that has become a family.”
Vince Dioguardi, 15, told his cautionary tale of drug addiction, revealing some of the same harrowing details he had shared last month at a community drug forum hosted by the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Community Advisory Committee. This time, he emphasized just how destructive bullying can be. “Whether I was being bullied or bullying, I thought, ‘My life sucks,’” Dioguardi said. “I hated who I was, so I started to do anything it took to get away from that. Unfortunately, for me, that included drugs.”
Priscilla Kang, a sophomore, made an appeal to her fellow stressed-out teens to find perspective. “You’re more than a number in a system — the clothes you wear, the assets you own,” she said. “We are more than numbers, more than college names.”
And Sonya Kalara asked, bluntly, “When is the last time you wanted to punch someone in the face?”
The junior admitted that she experiences the sensation more than she’d like to, but less and less so.
Take her recent experience at the state competition for speech and debate, where she earned a scholarship for being the most inspirational speaker but finished second in her event.
“I was pretty salty,” she said. “Even though I had made my school proud, the perfect girl had beaten me. And I continued to feel this way until she friended me on Facebook and followed me on Instagram.”
All it took, Kalara said, was a few minutes scrolling through the winner’s posts to change her perspective on her former foe.
“Every photo I saw humanized her,” Kalara said. “[She was] another good human being. And I was proud of her for winning the state title. And when I could be proud of her, I realized I could also be proud of myself.”
And that, Kalara said, taught her something about life: “We need a wave of empathy to take over the world and change how we view ourselves and how we view the future.”

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