Here is the full transcript of NBC News journalist Mariana Atencio’s TEDx Talk presentation: What Makes You Special? at TEDxUniversityofNevada conference. This event occurred on January 21, 2017.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: What makes you special by Mariana Atencio at TEDxUniversityofNevada
Thank you so much.
I am a journalist. My job is to talk to people from all walks of life, all over the world. Today I want to tell you why I decided to do this with my life and what I’ve learned.
My story begins in Caracas, Venezuela in South America where I grew up, a place that to me was and always will be filled with magic and wonder. From a very young age, my parents wanted me to have a wider view of the world.
I remember one time when I was around seven years old, my dad came up to me and said: “Mariana, I’m going to send you and your little sister, who was six at the time, to a place where nobody speaks Spanish. I want you to experience different cultures.”
He went on and on about the benefits of spending an entire summer in ‘this summer camp’ in the United States. Stressing a little phrase that I didn’t pay too much attention to at the time, ‘you never know what the future holds’.
Meanwhile in my seven-year-old mind, I was thinking we were going to get to summer camp in Miami. Maybe it was going to be even better and we were going to go a little further north to Orlando where Mickey Mouse lived. I got really excited.
My dad, however, had a slightly different plan: from Caracas he sent us to Brainerd, Minnesota. Mickey Mouse was not up there and with no cell phone, no Snapchat or Instagram, I couldn’t look up any information. We get there and one of the first things I noticed was that the other kids’ hair was several shades of blonde and most of them had blue eyes.
Meanwhile this is what we looked like. The first night, the camp director gathered everyone around the campfire and said: “Kids, we have a very international camp this year. The Atencios are here from Venezuela.”
The other kids looked at us as if we are from another planet. They would ask us things like: “Do you know what a hamburger is, or do you go to school in a donkey or canoe?” I would try to answer in my broken English, and they would just laugh.
And I know they were not trying to be mean; they were just trying to understand who we were and make a correlation with the world they knew. We could either be like them or like characters out of a book filled with adventures like Aladdin or The Jungle Book. We certainly didn’t look like them; we didn’t speak their language. We were different. And when you’re seven years old, that hurts.
But I had my little sister to take care of and she cried every day at summer camp. So I decided to put on a brave face and embrace everything I could about the American way of life. We later did what we called the summer camp experiment for eight years in different cities that many Americans haven’t even heard of. What I remember most about these moments was when I finally clicked with someone, making a friend was a special reward. Everybody wants to feel valued and accepted and we think it should happen spontaneously. But it doesn’t.
When you’re different you have to work at belonging. You have to be either really helpful, smart, funny, anything to be cool for the crowd you want to hang out with. Later on when I was in high school, my dad expanded on his summer plan and from Caracas he sent me to Wallingford, Connecticut for senior year of high school. This time I remember daydreaming on the plane about the American high school experience with a locker. It was going to be perfect just like in my favorite TV show: Saved by the Bell.
I get there and they tell me that my assigned roommate is eagerly waiting. I opened the door and there she was sitting on the bed with a headscarf. Her name was Fatima and she was Muslim from Bahrain and she was not what I expected. She probably sensed my disappointment when I looked at her because I didn’t do too much to hide it.
See, as a teenager I wanted to fit in even more, I wanted to be popular, maybe have a boyfriend for prom. And I felt that Fatima just got in the way with her shyness and her strict dress code.
I didn’t realize that I was making her feel like the kids at summer camp made me feel. This was the high school equivalent of asking her: do you know what a hamburger is?
I was consumed by my own selfishness and unable to put myself in her shoes. I have to be honest with you, we only lasted a couple of months together, because she was later sent to live with a counselor instead of other students.
And I remember thinking: ah, she’ll be okay, she’s just different. You see, when we label someone as different it dehumanizes them in a way. They become the other. They’re not worthy of our time, not our problem and in fact, they, the other, are probably the cause of our problems.
So how do we recognize our blind spots? It begins by understanding what makes you different, by embracing those traits. Only then can you begin to appreciate what makes other special.
And I remember when this hit me, it was a couple months after that I had found out boyfriend for prom and made a group of friends and practically forgotten about Fatima, until everybody signed on to participate in this talent show for charity. You needed to offer a talent for auction and it seemed like everybody had something special to offer.
Some kids were going to play the violin, others were going to recite a theater monologue. And I remember thinking we don’t practice talents like these back home. But I was determined to find something value.
So the day the talent show comes and I get up onstage with my little boom box and put it on the side and I press play and a song by my favorite emerging artist Shakira comes up and I go: ‘whenever, wherever, we’re meant to be together’. And I said my name is Mariana and I’m going to auction a dance class and it seems like the whole school raised their hand to bid. My dance class really stood out from like the tenth violin class offer that day.
And going back to my dorm room, I didn’t feel different, I felt really special. And that’s when I started thinking about Fatima, a person that I had failed to see as special when I first met her. She was from the Middle East, just like Shakira’s family was from the Middle East, she could have probably taught me a thing or two about belly dancing had I been opened to it.
Now I want you all to take that sticker that was given to you at the beginning of our session today where you wrote down what makes you special. And I want you to look at it. If you’re watching at home, take a piece of paper and write down what makes you different. You may feel guarded when you look at it, maybe even a little ashamed, maybe even proud. But you need to begin to embrace it. Remember it is the first step in appreciating what makes other special.