TEDxUConn speaker Dillan DiGiovanni redefines stigma, success

Michael Mallery Jr., a member of UConn’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion and founder of I'm So Educated, speaks during a TEDxUConn event in Oak Hall on the UConn campus in Storrs, Connecticut on Sunday, April 24, 2016. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

Lifestyle and leadership coach Dillan DiGiovanni has changed more in a couple of decades than most people do in a lifetime.

Career-wise, he’s done everything from working in a bagel shop to teaching eighth grade social studies. Spiritually, he’s converted from Catholicism to a rebellious atheist to Buddhist. He’s even redefined his relationship with anxiety and depression, transitioned to live as a man well into adulthood and has almost a dozen tattoos to boot.

To put it simply, DiGiovanni was the perfect person to open the second session of TEDxUConn 2016, “Systems and Surroundings: Redefined” Sunday at the University of Connecticut’s Oak Hall. After reframing so much about the way he lived his own life, DiGiovanni decided he wanted to use his experiences professionally to help others become the best person they could be.

“It’s hard to take a look at this picture and think that you could make a dent of any significance,” DiGiovanni said in front of a large image of Earth taken from outer space. “You don’t need to become a person of tremendous significance creating innovative technology or spend 360 days on the international space station to do it.”

DiGiovanni told the audience he was equally inspired by the triumphs of tech giants like Steve Jobs and the perseverance of everyday people, like an Uber driver who encouraged his sons to quit drinking after successfully taking on alcoholism himself.

DiGiovanni said reconnecting with his estranged mother and redefining the way he related to the stigma of transitioning was central to leaving a more positive mark on the world.

“I realized that I could use that to create a very angry, frustrated dent in our universe, or I could understand what was going on and the way that human beings sort and categorize and judge each other,” he said. “I decided to transform it and leave people feeling educated and inspired instead.”

TEDxUConn speaker Tanisha Akinloye, CEO of Empowering Through Beauty, said she has also redefined the way she views the world, particularly in the realms of success and beauty.

Akinloye said encouraging women to harness their inner light has been key to her work with homeless individuals and survivors of domestic abuse.

“It’s really sad what I see they go through when they are dealing with adversity, but I’m here to say to anyone who is facing adversity that you can break free and rise above it if you realize that it’s something that we all must go through,” Akinloye told the audience.

A survivor of domestic abuse herself, Akinloye said embracing her spiritual beauty gave her the strength to go back to school as a mother of three before starting her own business. Akinloye credited the renewing energy of meditation and positive thought with empowering her clients to escape the vicious cycles of depression, anxiety and homelessness.

“I overcame adversity by forgiving, believing and giving. Forgiving the source it came from, believing that I could and giving to those in need,” she said. “You may have adversity, but adversity cannot have you.”

Michael Mallery Jr. of UConn’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion took things in a lighter direction with a TEDx talk on using academics to build a personal brand. Mallery, who is an entrepreneur in addition to a Hartford 100 Men of Color honoree, urged students to view UConn as more than a “production facility” where homework, projects and exams can be submitted in exchange for a degree.

Instead of aiming for A’s, students should strive for straight C’s - with every one of them standing for consistency. Being aware of his mission and core values, plus cutting down on distractions like videogames and partying, allowed Mallery to make the most out his college education.

“With a little bit of consistency, you all will continue to activate the inner rock star within you,” he said.

The second session of TEDxUConn 2016 also included a performance by student acapella group Notes Over Storrs and a pair of poignant video TEDTalks. The first featured Caleb Harper, director of the Open Agriculture Initiative, as he explained how digitally assisted urban agriculture could redefine the world’s food system in the near future.

In the second talk, Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, hailed 2016 as the turning point in the “disgraceful national epidemic” of gun violence in the United States. Gross, whose brother survived being shot in the head during a mass shooting as the Empire State Building, was met by a rousing round of applause from the audience despite only appearing on screen.

TEDxUConn was sponsored by the Human Rights Institute, the College of Liberal Arts and Science, the Office of Student Affairs, the Honors Program and the Undergraduate Student Government.


Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at kimberly.armstrong@uconn.edu.