GatorCon: Going Beyond the Classroom

Some people say food fuels the best ideas — and seniors Natali Salaytah and Julia Niemeier would concur, as they developed the idea of an Allegheny TEDx-inspired convention while eating at McKinley’s Food Court.

“I wanted to give people an opportunity to speak about those things that get them excited about learning, even if they weren’t strictly academic or didn’t fit into a senior project or faculty-student research project,” said Niemeier. “When I heard that Natali had also had pretty much the same idea, we decided to create a TEDx-style program here at Allegheny. It was really the desire to foster interdisciplinary learning and respect that was our end goal.”

Niemeier and Salaytah had just become presidents of academic honor societies — Niemeier, president of Sigma Tau Delta, the English honor society; Salaytah, president of Psi Chi, the psychology and neuroscience honors society. They wanted to expand their impact beyond their individual societies by connecting with the others on campus.

“As presidents, we wanted to work to bridge the gap between departments by introducing more collaboration between their honors societies,” Salaytah recalled. “We also felt that there was a gap in the way our college community presents individual research and student passions. We wanted to provide a platform for students whose passions don’t necessarily turn into comps, or where their niche interests don’t mesh with the faculty-offered topics on campus.”

Salaytah and Niemeier put together a committee of presidents from other honor societies and drew support from their faculty advisors, as well as the Student Leadership & Involvement Office. The committee launched a website to encourage students to submit applications of abstracts they wanted to present. Students whose abstracts were chosen by the committee continued to an audition round, and finally, GatorCon had its panel of presenters.

“Everyone we worked with was really helpful and accommodating, so that made the process of putting the convention together a lot easier,” Niemeier said. “Natali and I had a great committee to help us out, and as we both are really organized people — you could say neurotically so — that helped as well.”

GatorCon debuted in Shafer Auditorium on Saturday, March 2, with seven Allegheny students presenting on topics that ranged from deforestation to breathing to dementia.

“I think the biggest benefit is giving people a platform to speak about and share the interests that really keep them excited about learning and about the world,” said Niemeier. “GatorCon was a place to share passion for things, excitement about things, the things that make you geek out and start telling everyone about them. And I think it was also important that GatorCon was completely student run, produced and initiated. It really was our — the students’ — conference.”

Salaytah noted that she could tell from the conference how much it meant to the speakers to have a platform for their passions. “It seemed like it was a very important experience for our speakers — which was the most rewarding thing to see,” she said.

Both of the founders have hope that, next year, students from the honors societies will again come together to carry on the convention. Anyone interested in doing so can reach out to them with questions about the process: salaytahn@allegheny.edu or niemeierj@allegheny.edu.

A note of thanks from the co-founders:
“I’d like to thank Craig Pardee for all his help with AV and the technical aspects of the event, the board of Psi Chi that helped me personally since the very beginning, Gretchen Beck who gave us the most helpful advice when we first began, and to the rest of the founding committee: Bobby Bower, Emily Hayhurst, Sarah Young, and Willa Jones Irwin. Finally, my biggest thanks goes to Julia for planning all of this with me and for sticking it out for a whole year to watch our dreams come to life.”
–Natali Salaytah

“Our committee helped us tremendously: Bobby Bower from Tri-Beta, Willa Jones-Irwin from Lambda Sigma, Emily Hayhurst (in the fall) from Lambda Pi Eta, and Sarah Young (in the spring) from Lambda Pi Eta. They were all lovely to work with and deserve so much credit for pulling this event off! Also, we obviously couldn’t have done any of this without our speakers, who are another lovely group of people who put up very well with Natali and I kind of ironing out the wrinkles of this thing as we went along. And of course, a million thanks to Natali for matching my crazy visions and being a fellow hyper-organized Virgo.”
–Julia Niemeier