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How a healing field trip inspired Alexia to take the stage at TEDxLeidenUniversity

One day you feel inspired by a field trip, the next you are a speaker at TEDxLeidenUniversity. It happened to International Relations student Alexia. How did she end up on stage – and why did she want to? Alexia shares her story with us. ‘I was given hope, and I wanted to share it with others.’

It is autumn 2023 when Alexia-Teodora Matei, International Relations student at Leiden University, embarks on a field trip for the course Sustainability and Health of the Honours College track Science, Society and Self. Central to the course is the connected well-being of the self and the planet. For today’s trip, the students are setting out to connect with nature through meditation exercises and drawing The Hague’s urban nature.  

Alexia inspecting a tree with a magnifying glass.
Alexia inspecting a tree during her field trip.

When Alexia gets back, she feels like a different person. ‘It was a beautiful day’, she says looking back on the experience, ‘We are often raised with the mindset that humans and nature are separate. That day I realised we can never be separated from nature and I got to reconnect with it. It was very empowering and healing to see so many people ground their actions in care and thoughtfulness.’

Alexia decides more people should get to experience a similar connection. ‘It gave me a lot of hope, and I want to share it with others.’ On top of that, she wanted to show that the less conventional approaches taught by the course – critical schools of thought, interpretative research, emotional knowledge – can constructively contribute to scientific discussions on climate change. ‘They are worth interacting with, even if you don’t agree with them fully.’

Change the system

And so, Alexia applies for TEDxLeidenUniversity 2024. On 20 April, after a rigorous training process, she finally takes the stage. With a calm, persuasive voice, she invites the audience to rethink their beliefs on climate change. ‘We think of climate change as an environmental problem. That view is incomplete. Climate change is not inevitable, it is caused by certain value systems.’ Central to those value systems, Alexia argues, is putting economic growth above all else. She calls for a different approach, which prioritises human and planetary wellbeing: degrowth. 

Degrowth could stop the cycle of pointing fingers that climate discussions often result in, thinks Alexia. ‘Degrowth doesn’t target individuals, but considers the entire society. It challenges us to rethink what we want our surplus to promote: more economic growth, or taking care of people and nature.’ To get there, we first need to change our beliefs. ‘When we become aware that our systems are not set in stone – that they are constructed, rather than innate to human societies – we become empowered to change them.’

‘Warm and personal’

Iago Jover Mariño (22), chairman of TEDxLeidenUniversity 2024, likes how Alexia seeks to find common ground on a contested issue like climate change. ‘Her message is: sure, it is something to worry about. Now let’s get away from the blame game and look for solutions.’ It was one of the reasons why Alexia was elected as a speaker this year. ‘She worked very hard on researching her story as well.’

Like Alexia, more honours students seem drawn to the TED community, says Iago. ‘They want to make an impact that goes beyond writing papers.’ Alexia finds another explanation for her interest, too. It was the teaching at Honours that sparked a light she wanted to spread. ‘The education breathed care, partly through the topics we discussed but also through the way they were presented to us. It was warmer, more personal than other classes.’  

What will she do next? Alexia thinks for a moment. ‘This TEDx thing has been with me through a lot of other experiences: classes, exam weeks, visiting my homeland for the holidays… It was always in the back of my head. And now it’s over. I need some time to let it go.’ But that doesn’t mean everyone should: ‘I truly hope I inspired others to join this transformative experience!’

Text: Michiel Knoester
Photos: Buro JP

Meet TEDxLeidenUniversity!

The ‘x’ in TEDx means the event is independently organised by a local community. At TEDxLeidenUniversity, this community consists of student volunteers, all studying at Leiden University. 

What does life as a TEDx organiser look like? Chairman Iago Jover Mariño tells you all about it!

Why did you become chairman of TEDxLeidenUniversity?

‘I have always felt very connected to the TED community. I have watched every TED Talk there is and was a speaker myself in 2023. I felt intrigued and inspired. I wanted to give other students the same opportunity to share their ideas with the world.’

How much time did you invest in organising this event? 

Laughs: ‘A lot. We started in June last year. Initially, I spent around 10 hours a week. The last couple weeks it’s been a fulltime job. But the more time you put in, the more time you want to put in. If I could put in 25 hours a day, I would.’

Why work so hard for a volunteer job?

‘People think: whatever I do, I can never change the world. I completely disagree. One person can do that. My TEDx Talk was about changing the educational system and promoting independent ideas. I believe education can fight cynicism, including events like these. If at least one person goes home tonight and feels changed, it’s been a success.’

What is your dream for TEDxLeidenUniversity for the future?

‘I envision us at Amare in The Hague, the big stage, the red carpet, thousands of people. They have this in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, why would Leiden be any less?’

Interested in applying? The board members for TEDxLeidenUniversity 2025 will be selected in May, the speakers in November. 

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