She submitted just one application for graduate school.
For Zola Ncube, it could only be Stanford University. The bet paid off – she got in.
“I was extremely certain that was all I wanted to do,” she said of studying international educational policy at Stanford. Ncube had top marks, great relationships with her professors, she had even landed a job. Then, she dropped out of Stanford a month before her graduation. She didn’t even tell her family.
It was a 180-degree turn.
Ncube, BHSc‘19, went to live in rural Zimbabwe with her grandmother. With no running water, she was shown how to carry 20 litres of water on her head.
The lessons she learned transformed her life and outlook.
“For a long time, I was ashamed to tell this story. It wasn’t until a few months ago I started telling it to my external circle. They said ‘What? You went through all of that? That’s so inspiring.’ I thought, wait a minute, maybe other people need to hear this story.” – Zola Ncube, Western researcher and TedxWesternU speaker
She will share revelations from her journey at TedxWesternU 2024 on Feb. 2. The theme is “Rising Phoenix,” meant to show how greatness can emerge after meeting challenges and overcoming obstacles.
Ncube, also a professional dancer who teaches and dances with a London company, finished her master’s program at Western in the fall and will graduate this year. Her research focused on intimate partner violence and mental health services in Ontario during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now on a post-graduate appointment, Ncube studies frontline HIV/AIDS healthcare workers who treat children and teens in sub-Saharan Africa, recently completing a primary research study on 700 workers across 12 countries.
From the lessons she learned in rural Zimbabwe about African Indigenous knowledge systems – information that changed her entire leadership style – to the power of taking the path less travelled, Ncube knows her story fits perfectly with the focus of this year’s conference.
“One of the things that inspired me to form the story in the way I did was the rising phoenix. We often think of ashes, of fire, which are both signs of death. Ashes can actually be that magical fairy dust that lead you further into your purpose,” Ncube said.
She hopes to inspire attendees and virtual viewers to pay attention when life tells them to slow down.
“If it can even just inspire one person to listen to the pause – whether you’re in the diaspora and that means going back to your ancestral home or whatever that means to you, to listen to that pause – that’s important. That actually won’t set you back, it will propel you forward.”
Global speakers featured at event
This year’s event – the second TedxWesternU conference since it was renewed last year – includes inspiring speakers from all over the world.
“We had a record number of applicants, but our speaker base came largely from the United States. We weren’t expecting that. It was definitely interesting to see how our event got into the hands of people with ideas from around the world,” organizer and fourth-year Huron student Jocelyn Hadden said.
“We present talks that matter to the Western community – that’s one of our primary goals, so it’s great to see Western represented in our speakers as well,” Hadden said.
From current researchers to incoming students to honorary degree recipients, many have Western connections, and others will bring messages that appeal to a university audience. Journalist and author Sally Armstrong, LLD’22 is also among the speakers.
“I’m really excited to have her speak and have her as part of this event, because I think she encapsulates the idea of rising phoenix: after adversity there is opportunity for renewal and rebirth and the opportunity to rise up bigger and stronger than ever before,” Hadden said.
This year’s event will feature 12 speakers and can accommodate up to 425 guests. The event also has unlimited space for virtual attendees. The organizing committee chose speakers with a Western audience in mind, Hadden said.
“We thought about what our students and our audience wanted to hear or needed to hear at this moment. There’s been a lot that’s gone on in the past few years. We believe the rising phoenix is a relevant theme considering the pandemic, wars, conflict, inflation and all the way up to rising global temperatures,” she said.
“We chose it so we could bring on stage stories of powerful people who have risen for what’s right. It serves as a reminder of the power of the resilient human spirit. We can rise to the occasion.”
Mental health top of mind
Mike Shoreman is no stranger to public speaking, but the Feb. 2 event will be his first TEDx Talk.
Shoreman, a mental health advocate, was the first person with a disability to stand-up paddleboard across all the Great Lakes. He completed the feat in August 2022 after a four-month adventure.
“The last time somebody crossed them – all of them – was in 1988. There’s a reason for that. The weather can change at any time – and it did, and it does. It was only successful because of the people that were part of this,” Shoreman said.
“My biggest takeaways are that you are only as strong as your team. I’m very fortunate that I had a very strong team of coaches and trainers and support crew and boat captains.” – Mike Shoreman, mental health advocate and speaker
Shoreman’s accomplishment came years after being told he would never paddleboard again when he was diagnosed with Ramsay Hunt syndrome, a neurological condition that caused symptoms including severe pain and vertigo, facial paralysis and walking challenges.
The stress of that journey led him to a mental health crisis.
His talk at the TedxWesternU conference will focus on the widespread mental health challenges facing Canadians, with one in five experiencing a mental illness in any given year. Shoreman also shares insights from his personal story of triumph. He built up his stamina and came up with unique strategies to allow him to continue paddleboarding despite his diagnosis, not just for leisure but setting a record as he crossed all the Great Lakes.
Shoreman began his motivational career five years ago when he entered and won North America’s largest inspiration speaking competition, Speaker Slam, with a piece called “I Said Yes.”
Hadden knows attendees at the TedxWesternU will come away just as inspired as the crowd at Shoreman’s first event. It’s what keeps her motivated to plan the annual event along with a team of Western students.
“Coming to TedxWesternU can help students, staff, faculty change the course of humanity by recognizing what is possible,” she said.
IF YOU GO
When: Feb. 2, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tickets: Virtual or in-person