WARREN, NJ - Eight students and one teacher formed the lineup of speakers at the 2020 edition of WHRHS TEDx, titled “Why Not,” on Thursday, Jan. 23, in the school’s Performing Arts Center (PAC).

The student speakers were: Sophomore Mariam Contractor; Junior Kaitlyn Roth; Junior Jacob Weber; Sophomore Hannah Han; Junior Mihika Iyer; Sophomore Rowan Haffner; Junior Maylin Zhu; and Junior Gavin Chiu. All are WHRHS students. One, Rowan Haffner, is a sophomore at Scarsdale High School.

The faculty speaker was WHRHS Social Studies Teacher Greg O’Reilly. His talk was about this year’s theme, “Why Not?”

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Host for the night was Junior Andrew Moberly. He introduced all the speakers, and provided levity between talks. The evening’s printed program included a thumbnail bio of Moberly similar to the thumbnail sketches of the featured speakers. Moberly has been performing since he was in 7th grade. Moberly is now a member of the school’s Drama Club, “Script and Cue,” and has been inducted into the Thespian Honor Society. He has appeared in several WHRHS theater productions. During the Summer, Moberly and his friends travel to different cities for the purpose of helping the homeless by working in soup kitchens, and fixing places to live.

Student organizers for the 2020 TEDx included: Sarah Almeida, Marilyn Du, Niharika Iyer, Megan Krutz, Jayanth Mammen, Isha Nagpaul, Surya Rai, Aryan Singh and Jordyn Youngelson.

The adult advisors for 2020 TEDx included WHRHS Business Teacher Dianne Krutz, former teacher of the Gifted and Talented program for Watchung Public Schools Elaine Chesebro, and WHRHS Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction Mary Ellen Phelan.

What Is TEDx

The program for the evening shares four bullet points about TEDx:

• TED is a conference for dreamers, thinkers, makers and doers to help inspire others to “make a difference in the world;

• Past influential speakers at TED conferences include Bill and Melinda Gates, Jane Goodall and Sal Khan;

• TEDxYouth is a TED conference geared toward high school and middle school students; and

• TEDxYouth@WHRHS is an independently organized event which seeks to bring a TEDYouth-like experience to a diverse audience of adolescents and adults.

The Speakers

Mariam Contractor said she is passionate about piano, composition and story-telling. Although she plans to pursue applied mathematics when she is older, she believes that music has helped her embrace discipline and resilience. An amateur composer, she enjoys applying creativity to musical performance.

With her talk, she highlighted the importance of listening intently to instrumental background music in order to improvethe understanding of film.

Kaitlyn Roth is a member of the school’s ALS Alliance Club.Outside the school she is secretary of the Lion’s International Leo Club, and is working toward her Gold Award in Girl Scouts, which is the Girl Scout equivalent of the Boy Scout’s Eagle Scout. She has a second degree Black Belt in Taekwondo, and is an assistant instructor at her Taekwondo school as well as captain of its competitive demonstration team. She always enjoy working at the Giving Nest Preschool’s aftercare program. 

Roth spoke about how making small changes to daily habits can have a positive impact on the environment.

Jacob Weber is an active member of the Model UN Club, and a captain of the Robotics Team. Outside of school, he is also the leader of his Boy Scout Troop and works at a summer camp with young people. Weber has a passion for public speaking and is a self-professed organization freak. 

Weber spoke about what he has learned about the importance of taking care of one self and time management, and how important these can be to being successful.

Hannah Han, also known as Peijin, is an active member of many clubs and sports inside and outside of the school, including theWatchung Hills Fencing Team, Exit Five Robotics, Culinary Club, Advanced Chorus and more. 

Although she had never done public speaking before, she said she is still excited to learn from this new experience, and to share her ideas about mental health.

Mihika Iyer is very interested in history, debate and politics. This is seen through her involvement in the school’s Model United Nations (UN) Club, as well as her personal involvement with the actual United Nations in New York City. 

She has launched her own non-profit around women in leadership and has a Podcast series to inspire “Gen Z“ girls. She devoted her TED talk to discussing issues around gender disparity and systematic sexism. She spoke about her efforts to inspire all women to aspire to achieve and embrace the idea of female leadership, or “Ladyship,” and visualize themselves in leadership roles in whatever they choose to do.

Rowan Haffner is passionate about volunteering, having completed more than 6,000 hours of service, with a majority of these hours helping the homeless and visiting with patients at his local hospital. As a ninth grader, Haffnew ranked #1 in New York State in public speaking. 

His TED talk brought to light some of the “hidden” benefits of volunteerism, in particular the fact that while volunteering is a benefit to the recipient of the volunteer’s time or attention, expertise and companionship, it also has the added bonus of being beneficial to the giver. It makes the volunteer a better person, and often helps the youth volunteer develop skills, interests, and experience that later become applicable to the volunteer’s future roles as professional, worker, parent, and/or community leader.

Haffner is a sophomore at Scarsdale, N.Y. Rowan found us through the TEDx website. As a licensed TED event, this TED event was posted on the TED site. Potential speakers scan upcoming events in their area, and apply to speak at them, according to Chesebro. Haffner sent a note and a video of himself delivering a short talk. The WHRHS organizers were impressed with his speaking skills and his resume. He has won several competitions, earned awards at Model UN, among others, and presents a polished, mature manner. He was invited to speak at the WHRHS TD event.

Maylin Zhu is on the executive board of the Teen Action Group, a group that focuses on mental health. She is also the secretary of the Watchung Hills Tri-M Music chapter, and plays in Fortissimo Flutes at NJYS (New Jersey Youth Symphony). Zhu also plays tennis on the WHRHS tennis team and is an assistant coach at Jodi’s Dream Team – Tennis Special Olympics. 

Zhu shared her thoughts about mindfulness, walked the audience through a demonstration of how they can access a deep mindfulness, and how “living in the moment” be beneficial.

Gavin Chiu is active in school activities, including “Arrowhead,” is a board member of the ALS Alliance, captain of Swim Team, and plays French Horn. He is an avid club swimmer.

Chiu’s TED Talk argued that enjoyment and passion are critical to success. He recommended students find a college major and career not only with the objective of making a living, but also with the objective of enjoying what they are doing. They should find the thing they are passionate about, and pursue it, because it is only in doing so that they will pour all their limitless energy into succeeding.

Channeling ‘Why Not?

WHRHS Social Studies Teacher Greg O’Reilly teachers U.S. History and American Government & Politics. He is married to his wife, Karen O’Reilly, and they are raising their twin sons, Rex and Xander, who are five-year-olds.

O’Reilly enjoys reading, running, discussing films, playing video games and learning how to build things out of wood.

His TED talk was about embracing this year’s TEDx theme, “Why Not?” Doing so, he told the audience, can help alter previously held misconceptions. Plus, it just might illuminate not only skills, but also “abilities to learn” and “passions to pursue” that audience members never know they had wanted to learn or knew they wanted to pursue. 

“The habits and routines you build for yourself will make you more risk averse to trying new things,” O’Reilly said.  “The act of growing older will reinforce this trend in your life.  In political science, this is known as the Lifespan Effect; as you get older you become more conservative in your thinking and more focused on protecting what you own and what you’ve accomplished.  This easily leads to routines and habits that are risk averse.“

O’Reilly concluded, saying: “But this question, ‘Why not?’  Can be a useful tool and clear indicator that you may need to disrupt your habits and routines.  Pay attention when you ask it.  Prepare for how to make it a reality.  Be aware of how you might falter in it.  But embracing risk and learning from it is a deliberate practice.  One that you control.”