Islam, fatherhood and math were the hot topics at Saturday’s second annual TEDxACU conference.
Omar El-Halwagi, a law student at the University of Michigan, told his personal story about life as a Muslim-American in post-9/11 America. He first experienced “Islamophobia” when he was bullied in the first grade. One little girl stood up for him against the other students and claimed him as a friend.
Experiences like this framed El-Halwagi’s perspective as he encountered both hate and respect for his religion throughout his education. Today he is studying employment discrimination law with the goal of fighting employee discrimination.
“I realized that all the civil rights that I cared about so much are issues in the business world,” El-Halwagi said.
In his talk, El-Halwagi said that he was in junior high school during 9/11. At the time, he couldn’t understand how his religion could be used for evil. He said he believed people used holy verses out of context to inspire violence.
In high school, he was not allowed to pray as his faith required him to do five times per day. Through a civil rights organization, he and other Muslim students at his school in Texas fought for their religious rights.
“It’s very important to interact with your faith from a justice perspective,” El-Halwagi said. “Regardless of your faith, if you look at any of the major religions, there’s an important component about justice and compassion. When we go out into the world and represent ourselves as people of faith, we have the responsibility to show compassion and be just.”
When El-Halwagi finished his talk, the audience in Fulk’s Theatre rose and applauded him in a standing ovation.
Sisters Zainab Ghwari, political finance assistant in Houston, and Hajar Ghwari, business major at the University of Houston, traveled to Abilene to hear El-Halwagi and expose themselves to a new environment.
“It’s beautiful that it’s really centering around growth and not just the past,” Zainab said. “I love that message of hope in every single lecture.”
Although they came from Houston, the Ghwari sisters said they were pleasantly surprised to find such diverse perspectives in Abilene.
Fatherhood was another important topic at the conference. J. Michael Hall, founder of Strong Fathers-Strong Families, discussed the idea of “father-fulness” instead of “fatherlessness.”
“It’s information that we all need to take to heart because we know fatherlessness is bad, but how can we make it better?” said Jamilah Spears, TEDxACU student ambassador and graduate communications student from Abilene.
Hall explained the role fathers have in their child’s development, saying that when fathers read to their children during the toddler age, the children’s verbal skills increase.
“It’s stuff that you do every single day without thought,” said Jessica McNeill, mother and nutrition major from Abilene. “It was awesome that now I have a really good reason to tell you to put her to bed,” McNeill said to her husband who also attended the event.
Justin McNeill, an aircraft worker at Dyess Air Force base, said he enjoyed the math talk from Ivars Peterson, freelance writer for the Mathematical Tourist. McNeill said the math talk tied geometry to everyday life in a fascinating way.
Marla Finley, a pre-school Spanish teacher from Rowlett, came to TEDxACU because she has family in Abilene and she said she listens to TED talks online every day.
“There’s something for everyone with all the speakers,” Finley said. “It was very enlightening.”
Finley said she also heard a message of hope from the various speakers.
“I really want to believe that there is hope for America to be a merciful, compassionate place to be,” Finley said. “I’d rather be in a place like this that is surrounded by people who are looking for a third way, not like a this-or-that, but let’s think outside the box and consider other options.”
TEDxACU featured performances from Revolution Strings and students Chelsea Johnson, English graduate student from Katy, Wes Robbins, junior sociology major from Houston, and Micah Bynum, senior communications major from Honolulu, Hawaii.
Student speakers Ben Cobb, senior biology major from Chantilly, Virginia and Saul Delgado, social work graduate student from San Juan, Puerto Rico, also represented the ACU student body with their talks on nutrition and manhood.
All TEDxACU talks will be available online at tedxacu.org in the next 4-6 weeks.