Student Stories

TEDxUChicago 2014: Behind the Scenes with Student Speaker Lauren Riensche

At the University of Chicago, it’s easy to feel like a small fish in a big pond.

Everyone is so intelligent and so driven! As a student coming from a tiny 2,000-person town where I graduated high school at the top of my class of 67 students, I certainly experienced this sensation. But what I’ve realized over the past three years at UChicago is that everyone is great at something. You just need to have the patience and assurance to discover what that something is.

It took me a while—almost my whole first year—but I finally found my forte. In retrospect, the answer seems glaringly obvious.


I spent the first 18 years of my life on my family’s six-generation farm. Our operation, the Blue Diamond Farming Company, is a corn, soybean, and wheat farm located south of Jesup, Iowa. And while I may not be destined for greatness as a mathematician or an opera singer, I know that corn likes it to be 85°F during the day and 60° at night, that bean leaves will turn toward or away from the sun as needed, and that you shouldn’t put two roosters in one pen.

Growing up in a rural setting, I didn't understand how unique it was to be a farmer or the rarity of first-hand agricultural knowledge—something I learned from hours on my grandpa’s lap in the combine, late nights sitting with my dad as he did paperwork, or driving grain cart during the busy days of autumn.

When I finally figured out my “UChicago niche,” I took it by the horns (excuse the pun). I unabashedly tromped around campus in my boots, sparked agriculture debates and answered questions in the dining halls, and began incorporating ag into as many aspects of my life at UChicago as possible. My happiness increased exponentially.

My assurance in my passion continued to grow to the point where I decided, on a brazen whim, to apply to be the TEDxUChicago undergraduate student speaker. As per my usual method of pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, I acted first and thought later. I submitted my 150-word talk idea in the midst of one of my afternoon classes, without much calculation or revision—the words came to me easily.

About three days before the tryouts, for which I was to prepare and present a five-minute excerpt of my talk, I hunkered down in Mansueto Library with my laptop, a coffee, and a friend, and began to put my ideas to paper. Easy as pie, right? NO. I couldn’t decide how far to push the boundaries of my topic, how to describe my concepts in terms easy enough to be understood in a mass setting, nor how to go about exposing what was in my heart to public scrutiny. And to top it off, I’m the worst kind of prose perfectionist. Suddenly, this whole TEDx thing hit me like a pile of bricks.

I sat there as day turned to night, as my friend left for dinner and came back (“Would you like me to pick you up anything?” “No thanks, I’m on an all-caffeine diet.”), and as evening-studiers began to scrounge for increasingly scarce desk space, until finally, finally, I was satisfied with the script in front of me.

Memorizing my speech was the easy part. I already knew all of the information—I just needed to be able to spin it in a compelling way. When I marched out of Snell-Hitchcock for tryouts at Harper, I felt no apprehension whatsoever. For my first time ever at the University of Chicago, I knew that I would be the expert in the room at something.

Two weeks later, I received an email that began, “Congratulations! I am pleased to tell you….” I had been accepted as the student speaker! I was going to share my passion and expertise with my peers at the conference April 19. For almost a decade, I had been training myself to be an advocate for agriculture (an “agvocate,” if you will), and I had never received such strong validation for my life’s work.

When the day of the conference arrived, my five family members and boyfriend from Iowa, as well as my closest friends and AOII sisters, all came to see my performance in Mandel Hall.

My allotted 18 minutes were a whirl of bright lights, laughter, and best of all, agriculture. My talk went perfectly! As I spoke about the future of agriculture from a first-hand, farmgirl point of view, the audience listened intently, laughed with me, and best of all, was receptive to what I had to say.

After the lights went down and the show was over, I parked myself by the entrance to Mandel to answer any questions. My biggest surprise? I received zero negative feedback. That’s not to assume everyone dived headfirst into accepting my message, but everyone at least seemed to approach the concept with an open mind. I was confounded; I had been preparing for weeks to defend my topic, only to be met with understanding and curiosity. I couldn’t have asked for a better crowd.

I am honored to have represented the UChicago undergraduate student body at this year’s TEDxUChicago event. I was thrilled at the chance to share what I am most passionate about with some of the world’s best and brightest. If you’re interested in hearing my speech, you are welcome to check it out on YouTube.