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First-Year Student’s TEDx Talk Centers on Life Between Cultures

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First-Year Student’s TEDx Talk Centers on Life Between Cultures

Jan. 24, 2023
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Someday, Hona Vaioleti wants to combine his interests in music and engineering to design and build performance spaces. As a first-year college student of Polynesian heritage, he’s already sharing what he’s learned from his experience in “the messy middle.”

University of Arizona TEDx speaker Hona Vaioleti thought he was done with the public speaking world.

In high school, he served as the captain of the speech and debate team and was named a state champion and a national semi-finalist. When he came to the University of Arizona to pursue an engineering degree, it didn’t take long to see how often public speaking came in handy, for situations from class presentations to explaining engineering concepts.

“Public speaking is a good skill to have in general,” said Vaioleti, who is also pursuing a minor in Spanish. “The best engineers I’ve seen are the ones who can not only articulate an idea, but they can explain it and argue it as well.”

Vaioleti has been a longtime fan of TED Talks, or filmed presentations on subjects including technology, entertainment and design. The TED Foundation’s tagline is “Ideas worth spreading.” In his first semester, he was assigned with presenting a stance on immigration in his English class. He wrote a speech about cultural assimilation, in which he talked about his experience as a child of immigrants: His mom is from Tonga, and, while his dad was born in the United States, he is Tongan and grew up in Tonga as well.

Vaioleti was more nervous than he expected for his presentation. Before he began, he told the class, “This should feel like a TED Talk.” He took a deep breath, looked at the ceiling, and let his muscle memory kick back in.

“He told me ahead of time he was planning a TED-style talk for his speech, and boy did he deliver,” said Eli Turner, Vaioleti’s English professor. “It really looked, felt, and sounded like any other TED talk I've seen. He was very well-rehearsed and practiced, and even his cadence felt like the way TED speakers talk.”

It had only been a few months since Vaioleti was competing in state and national-level tournaments, but he forgot how good it made him feel. He’d heard the university was organizing a TEDx event, or an independently organized TED event. So, he decided to email the event team and see if they were looking for speakers.

He knew that, as a first-year college student, he didn’t fit the profile of a typical TED or TEDx speaker, many of whom have decades of experience or highly specialized knowledge. So he understood when he wasn’t immediately offered a spot. But he got the backing of his English teacher, the W.A. Franke Honors College and several other groups with which he is involved, and reiterated his interest.

“One of my friends told me one of the things they loved most about me is how unconventional I am,” Vaioleti said. “I don’t have years of experience. I don’t have a degree in culture. But I have 18 years of my life, 18 years of experience.”

The university’s TEDx team invited him to a meeting so he could pitch his idea. The theme of this TEDx is “The Messy Middle,” so Vaioleti narrowed the focus of his presentation slightly, centering it on the experiences of second- and third-generation Americans – the children and grandchildren of immigrants.

“A lot of times, if you’re not brown enough to be brown and not white enough to be white, where do you belong?” he asked. “My argument is you’re born into the messy middle. If you choose it, you can go one way or the other, but it is important to know there is a place for you in the middle.”

The team was sold. Vaioleti is presenting his talk, “Life Between Cultures” at the University of Arizona TEDx event on Jan. 31. In-person attendance is highly limited, but all talks will be recorded and posted on the TEDx Talks YouTube channel after the event.

Vaioleti has his own place in “The Messy Middle” in more ways than one. Not only is he a child of immigrants, but he also has a plethora of personal interests, including music and theater. Growing up, he performed as a choir singer all over the world and spent many years in theater. In the future, he would like to combine his interest in architectural engineering with his passion for music to design and build performing spaces, such as recording studios and performance halls.

“That way, I can keep both things in my life,” he said. “I work best when I’m able to transfer skills from different parts of my life.”