by Robin L. Flanigan
Last November, Tiffany Staropoli ’96 told about 65 people in the Linehan Chapel that she could not have found the peace and serenity that guides her today if it weren’t for her cancer diagnosis. She talked about how hearing she had Stage 4 colon cancer in May 2013 ultimately led to “the best version” of herself because she decided to focus on embracing life instead of perpetuating the anger many people channel to fight the disease. And about how we need to become open to a “countercultural approach” to the challenges we’re given because “the worst news today could lead to the best circumstances tomorrow.”
Staropoli’s appearance was the highlight of the Center for Spirituality’s Tuesdays with TED series, which promotes discussions about the world’s most innovative ideas using videos recorded at TED conferences. TED is a nonprofit organization that started in 1984 with a conference combining talks on technology, entertainment, and design. Talks now are given in more than 100 languages.
“We see the universal quest for personal meaning and understanding about the world,” says Lynne Boucher, director of the Center for Spirituality and advisor in the Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue. The series “relates to our ongoing goal of helping students transform their thinking and engagement with what’s around them. Because they are hearing from people with different perspectives, they can dig deeper into what they believe, and that will, in their time at Nazareth, help their actions be more resonant with those beliefs.”
Two years ago, while brainstorming with student leaders about new programs the Center for Spirituality could offer, Boucher recalled Mitch Albom’s bestselling memoir Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson. She thinks a lot about that book and the deep discussions prompted by Morrie’s impending death. Familiar with TED Talks, Boucher suggested Tuesdays with TED.
So, on the last Tuesday of the month at 12:15 p.m. in the Center for Spirituality community room, students from different religious faiths and perspectives meet to watch a TED Talk—then talk about the talk—over pizza. The 45-minute bias-free zone serves a critical role in helping students explore their beliefs and spiritual values, according to Boucher, citing that at least 34 percent of incoming college students nationwide don’t have any religious affiliation.
Officially launched in fall 2013, Tuesdays with TED usually draws between 30 and 50 students. Topics have included gratitude and embracing vulnerability, but at times can get “a little edgy,” notes Boucher, referencing one talk that showed how simple videos can help ease interfaith tensions between Iraq and Iran.
“We try to find good ones about how to grow, and, if possible, how to grow spiritually,” says music education major Alexis Scangas ’16, secretary for the Center for Spirituality and a member of the Interfaith Council, a religiously diverse group of student leaders who work to build community and plan special programs. “But there’s not necessarily a requirement that they have to do with religion. We try to think everyone is spiritual just by being” alive.
Scangas, from St. Albans, Vermont, was personally moved by the vulnerability talk, given in 2010 by University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work research professor Brene Brown. (On the official TED site, this particular talk has garnered more than 17.6 million views.) “That one really struck home with me,” she says, “and I bought her book because of it. The concept was that the people who are happy in life are the people who open themselves up the most. To admit to someone that you’re not perfect is really hard, but I know that I can always think back to that talk.”
To reach more students, Tuesdays with TED organizers look forward to partnering more often with other on-campus groups. The Center for Spirituality teamed up in spring 2014 with the Lambda Association, which provides education, advocacy, and support to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community; that TED Talk was given by a gay Mormon missionary. Future plans also include the possibility of presenting one live talk a year.
Despite her serious topic, Staropoli, who describes a TED Talk as “going to the spa for your brain,” began her touching 12-minute presentation with humor: “In my estimation, the best talks start with a colonoscopy story.” She later talked about dancing when she needed a positive-attitude boost—in parking lots, in gardens, in her hospital bed—and how she refused to let depression, anxiety, and an antagonistic attitude cloud her days. “My journey was moving and gentle,” she says. “I was living the best year of my life.” Staropoli emphasized that the same attitude can be applied to the life-altering events she calls “everyday cancers,” such as the loss of a loved one or divorce.
“It was inspiring to see how an ordinary person could do so much under such circumstances,” says Maggie West ’16, president of the Center for Spirituality and a physical therapy major from Cortland, N.Y. “And it makes me really happy that this is something we’re doing here at Nazareth.”
Staropoli, featured along with four Nazareth College representatives at November’s TEDx Rochester event at East High School, said after her Linehan Chapel talk that she is proud of how Nazareth has changed, and not just physically, since she was a student. “I took advantage of a lot of what the school had to offer, but there’s just so much more these days. It’s impressive to see what these kids have at their fingertips now.”
With Tuesdays with TED, students are given a safe and nurturing environment to share thoughts and reflections.
“We’re really trying to encourage people to embrace themselves as they are, by being who they are,” says Scangas. “These talks are our evidence that the Center for Spirituality is right in what we’re doing. We can point to scientific facts and professional thinkers and well-known people and say, ‘They’re saying the same things we are.’”
Robin L. Flanigan is a freelance writer in Rochester, New York.
Tiffany Staropoli '96 captivates the audience with her TEDx talk "The Language of Cancer."