Penn State

TEDxPSU talks aim to spark conversation

Health educator Scott Fried speaks during TEDxPSU on Sunday.
Health educator Scott Fried speaks during TEDxPSU on Sunday. CDT photo

ESPN TV personality and journalist Jemele Hill took the stage at Schwab Auditorium Sunday morning and told the audience what scares her the most.

“You ask me today what my greatest fear is, and unequivocally, it’s success,” she said.

Hill was one of 16 speakers at the 5th annual TEDxPSU talks held on campus, an event devoted to gathering people to speak as experts or from personal experience to spark conversation and spread ideas via brief speeches. Ideas from the fields of medicine, technology, religion, psychology and other areas were among the subjects Sunday.

Success is scary because it breeds expectations and accountability, and it’s much easier to imagine failure, she said. The idea she was trying to get across was how to stop dwelling on failure and make success seem tangible.

A way she suggested was to turn negatives into positives, she said. Hill spoke of her own past and how some perceived disadvantages turned out to be beneficial. She grew up in inner-city Detroit to poor and drug addicted parents. That led her to write as a means of escape and she eventually wrote for her high school newspaper. Her mother cleaned houses, and often, Hill had to go along while she cleaned. One person her mother worked for had newspaper subscriptions, and Hill used that as a way to access newspapers. She was eligible for programs that helped low-income people attend college.

Hill would go on to graduate from Michigan State and work as a sportswriter before ending up on ESPN.

“Think about every negative in your life, think about every reason you have not to succeed, think of every barrier in your way, and I guarantee you, that is going to be the reason you succeed,” Hill said.

While some came from the national stage like Hill, other speakers at the talks came from within the Penn State community.

Suzy Scherf, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the university, studies brain development in typical children and adolescents and in those with autism. Scherf teaches a course on campus about debunking myths associated with autism, she said. One she spoke to Sunday was the effect that vaccinations have on autism. Scherf said studies around the world have proven that vaccines do not cause autism. Another is the myth that autism is only a disorder of childhood, although symptoms are most severe in childhood.

“People forget that kids with autism grow up to be teenagers with autism, and adults with autism, and seniors with autism,” Scherf said.

Other symptoms, like loneliness and becoming withdrawn, actually increase as autistic people grow older, Scherf said, and adolescence is a very vulnerable time for them. Adolescents with autism are unable to learn on their own many of the social skills typically developing adolescents learn, making it harder for them to become independent adults.

Like Hill, Scherf spoke of turning negatives into positives. Although her talk was a “cautionary tale” about autistic adolescence, she said it could also be a “time of opportunity” when people with autism can be taught essential social skills for adulthood if a new way of thinking about the disorder is adopted by teachers, doctors and policymakers.

Jeffrey Arnett, an author and professor who specializes in human development, said adolescence is followed by a phase called “emerging adulthood,” which lasts between the ages of 18 and 29.

“I think we all agree it takes longer to grow up today than it did in the past,” Arnett said.

He used the 1960s as a reference point. Then, he said, few people got an education beyond high school and most were married by their early 20s. Today, people tend to wait until their late 20s to get married and pursue postsecondary education. It was social and technological changes in the 1960s that brought about these shifts, Arnett said. The economy today is based on knowledge, not manufacturing, and requires education beyond high school, pushing everything else back.

Although not everyone is thrilled that it takes longer for young people to grow up, Arnett challenged that notion. Emerging adulthood offers a greater range of freedom for young people, and allows for a longer time to develop skills for the workplace, and also for marriage and parenthood.

“Don’t let anyone stampede you towards adulthood before you‘re ready, “ Arnett said. “Adulthood will still be ready when you are.”