Sharon Couch is an American track and field athlete. She represented her country at the 1992 and 2000 Summer Olympics. She spoke at TEDxUTK event at The University of Tennessee. Thursday, February 13, 2020.

In the 35 years since the conference known as TED was founded, the formula of a so-called “TED Talk” has become somewhat of a cultural fixture.

A well-dressed and eloquent speaker stands on a red circle and delivers an inspiring speech about the work they have done to make the world a better place, and when they are finished, they say a simple “thank you,” followed by uproarious applause from the satisfied crowd.

The seventh annual TEDxUTK conference, held in the Mossman Building Thursday night and titled “Opening The Door,” did not stray from this familiar formula by any means; there was even a carpeted red circle for the four speakers to stand on.

But the event, which was independently organized by students and hosted by the Office of Title IX, breathed new life into the annual conference with a slate of accomplished and daring women from the UT and Knoxville communities who shared candid stories of overcoming adversity.

Fourth-year students and TEDxUTK co-coordinators Sophia Cui and Mallika Vohra chose the theme of the event and the speakers out of a desire to give voice to women across multiple disciplines who have not only opened proverbial doors, but have continued to hold them open for others.

“They blazed their own trails. ... But, they’re paving the way for other people as well,” Cui said. “It’s about opening that door, leaving that door open, so others can come through as well.”

Valorie Vojdik, the Waller Lansden Distinguished Professor of Law at the UT College of Law and the first speaker of the night, shared her story of helping litigate against The Citadel, South Carolina’s military college, for its exclusionary admissions policies in the 1990s.

What began as a straightforward representation of a young female client who wanted to attend the then all-male college turned into a complex struggle against blatant and institutional sexism.

“What I thought would be an easy case morphed into a gender war,” Vojdik said. “The exclusion of women was the defining characteristic of the institution.”

Vojdik gave detail after detail about the hostility and violence towards women that she and her client were exposed to throughout the legal battle, including expletive-laced threats and misogynistic put-downs. But ultimately, the litigation led by Vojdik triumphed and The Citadel accepted its first female cadet.

Similarly to Vojdik, Nicole Eisenberg, an oral surgeon with the Knoxville Center for Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, spent the second talk of the evening telling personal stories of harassment in her profession that made the audience gasp.

In one such story, an older male surgeon pressed his body against hers during a surgery when she was a dental student. In another, a male colleague told her to leave bowls of water and food out for her infant twins and come to work when her children’s caretaker called in sick.

Wearing a pin with the now famous “Time’s Up” slogan of the #MeToo movement, Eisenberg made an impassioned call to change policies in the healthcare industry, and especially the male-dominated field of surgery, to make it inclusive of and safer for women.

The third and fourth speakers of the night spoke on the complex realities of living life as both a female and a minority.

Riley Toll, a UT junior in biomedical engineering who serves as the president of Life Without Limits, a club that works to make disability-compatible technology, was chosen as 2020’s student speaker. Born without a left hand, Toll detailed a long road to self-acceptance that was paved with insecurity and self-doubt. She opened by asking the audience a simple and powerful question.

“I want you to imagine a life where all your insecurities disappear,” Toll said. “Would you be the same person?”

Toll argued that, though insecurities are central to the human experience, we can overcome them if we “identify, fight and disobey” the negative thoughts we have about ourselves.

Closing the night, Sharon Couch, a two-time Olympian and now coordinator for Student Life as well as Diversity and Inclusion for the Herbert College of Agriculture, shared her experience as a black female athlete, three identifiers which she felt at one time she needed to neutralize in order to succeed.

But she came to embrace her identity as a black woman and as an athlete, going on to compete in track in two Olympic games. As Couch tells it, she went from watching the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in a two-room trailer along a rural dirt road to qualifying for the games herself twice.

Now, as a PhD student in sports psychology, she has found a new pursuit. But just as with her other pursuits, she has no doubt that she can overcome the difficult task of obtaining her doctorate degree.

For the 100 or so attendees who were lucky enough to attend the TEDxUTK 2020 conference, it will be the timely stories of the four courageous speakers that stick themselves indelibly in the mind. Beginning the night with her stirring account of beating the odds, Vojdik summed up the spirit of “Opening the Door” well.

“It is not enough to simply open the door for women. In order to include women, institutions must change,” Vojdik said. “The fight for gender equality is not over.”

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