‘Below the Surface’: VCU students, alumni dig deep in inspirational speeches

Illustration by Marissa Stratton

Hadia Moosvi, Contributing Writer

TEDxVCU, an independently organized TED Talk event, returned Saturday for the first time since 2018, posing the question: “What big ideas lie below the surface?” 

From topics such as ice age animals, the many faces of carbon and remaining undefined, this year’s theme, “Below the Surface,” addressed deeper meanings and common misconceptions. Seven VCU students, alumni and instructors presented during the event.

“VCU has a lot of great ideas coming from a lot of different corners of the university,” planning committee co-chair Justin Raibolt said. “TEDx is a much broader base where we can bring together this really dramatically different set of topics into one big platform to showcase for the entire university.”

Raibolt said there were over 100 VCU applicants, including students and employees, interested in speaking at this year’s virtual event hosted by the University Student Commons. 

The planning committee, which consisted of both students and faculty, narrowed the applicants down to seven speakers and two performers. Accepted speakers were chosen based on their reflection of the surrounding community and diversity of thought, Raibolt said.

Here are some of the event’s highlights.


“The Missing Link in Black Women’s Reproductive Health”

During her time at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, Bianca Owens was part of a sister circle — a sacred space to share the experiences that affect the well-being of Black women. 

“Without having been with those group of women, I probably would not be here at VCU — just because it was that instrumental in just shaping me into who I am today,” said Owens, a health psychology graduate student. 

Owens said sister circles and culturally representative care are feasible ways to combat the inequity faced by Black women who seek medical care, especially in reproductive health.

Despite there being procedures available that effectively treat uterine fibroids, or abnormal uterine growths, Black women are still more likely to experience more severe, persistent symptoms and diagnoses at a younger age, compared to other racial and ethnic groups, Owens said.  

A severe lack of adequate insurance coverage, mistrust between patients and health care professionals and high costs all contribute to the inequity Black women face with reproductive health, Owens said. 

After coming to VCU, Owens centered her research around sexual and reproductive health while placing an “African-centric lens,” or an in-depth focus on people of African descent, at the heart of her work.

Owens said the TEDxVCU event was a way for her to let Black women know that they are seen and heard. 

“My hope is that Black women listening know that they are not forgotten, that the missing link is identified,” Owens said. “There are people out there working to help fill those gaps so that they can get the care that they need, the care that they deserve as human beings.”


“Hate is a Virus”

Although presenting a TED Talk was always part of Anna Marie “Amie” Rodriguez’s bucket list, a rise in hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islanders sparked her interest in participating in the TEDxVCU event.

“I really wanted to discuss something that was somewhere in between an intersection of my experiences as an Asian American woman, but also acknowledging that it’s part of a bigger story of oppression,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview. 

Rodriguez, a senior studying biology and creative writing, said joining the VCU student group Filipino Americans Coming Together gave her courage to participate in the event.

“It allowed me to feel prepared to go into something like this, even though it’s a huge topic that somebody that’s just an undergrad student like me, I don’t have the qualifications to be dissecting it,” Rodriguez said. “But it still made me feel like I mattered enough to provide something even if it’s minimal.”


“Resilient by Design”

Three-time cancer survivor and School of Business alumna Rachel Elliott said during her presentation that gratitude, positivity and compassion are all components of being resilient. 

Elliott discussed her experience with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of cancer that affects blood and bone marrow. Her journey began from her diagnosis at the age of 11, and she is now at her point of “forever remission,” she said. 

“I like to say there is beauty in my story even though it was full of times of adversity,” Elliott said. “Because, in turn, I’ve been able to become a stronger version of myself and more resilient.”

Elliott said her presentation was a full-circle moment after transferring to VCU and being a longtime patient at VCU Health. 

“VCU was part of my support system as I was going through another cancer diagnosis,” Elliott said. “VCU has always been a part of my story.” 


  1. This article so beautifully illustrates the coming together of various VCU students and the things they stand for in regards to the TEDxVCU event! Wonderful article and wonderful job to all the TED talk speakers!

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