TEDxUT student speaker, activist Valeria Colunga inspires Gen Z to change world Alishba Javaid

Alishba Javaid, Life and Arts Reporter

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the March 11, 2022 flipbook.

Valeria Colunga said she will always remember hearing sirens and gunshots as she laid on the floor while the police persecuted narcos in front of her middle school. 

Growing up in Monterrey, Mexico during the 2010s, when the government embarked on an extreme crackdown on drug trafficking, Colunga felt violence was normalized for her at an early age. 

“We were born into a world of chaos, a world that has pushed us to grow out of our innocence,” Colunga said. “Activism arrived in my life as a coping mechanism and a way to gain power over things I couldn’t control.”

Colunga, a 21-year-old activist and international relations and global studies and Latin American studies senior, was one of nine featured speakers at TEDxUTAustin’s 5th annual Ted Talk Conference, “Blueprints,” on March 5 at the AT&T Conference Center. During her speech, Colunga encouraged Gen Z to create change and called on older generations to make room for younger voices in decision making. 

“The biggest misconception I have ever encountered is the idea that young people are not interested in participating in the government,” Colunga said. 

Colunga’s activism began when she helped create the first “Girl Up coalition in Mexico, a movement to advance young women’s rights, skills and opportunities. Her activism has led to being appointed by the United Nations Foundation as one of eight Next Generation Fellows to write “Our Future Agenda,” a report aimed to foster solidarity between youth and the international community.

“It is a great privilege and responsibility to represent the hopes and dreams of young people,” Colunga said. “When I work with young people, I try to (tap) into our shared experiences and feelings.”

Colunga’s roughly 15-minute talk required dozens of revised drafts, constant memorization and seven to nine weeks of preparation. However, the TEDxUT Austin’s curation committee supported her throughout the process.  

“She’s very energetic in her speech,” economics sophomore and curation committee member Adam Elhamdi said. “The way she speaks in person is also the way she speaks on stage.”  

Colunga said she felt empowered when giving her talk to the audience of roughly 1,000 people. 

“As soon as I went on stage, it felt real,” Colunga said. “I (didn’t) want to mess this up, but I also felt at peace because I had been practicing this speech for so long; getting to see the audience’s reaction was very reassuring.”

Colunga’s mentor Rubén Cantú, executive director of the Office of Inclusive Innovation and Entrepreneurship, who she met when she joined the WIELD career incubator program, said he was impressed by the leadership skills she exuded while speaking.“She took the reins and started leading, and she’s like, ‘I want this class and I want it bad,’” Cantú said. “She really put all she wanted into it … and she just blossomed.”

Colunga said she wanted the audience to believe in themselves, recognize their power and be ambitious. 

“Believing in yourself is a form of self love because you decide to believe in what you stand for and what you want to see in the world,” Colunga said. “If I invite more people to think that way, that is going to be enough to inspire other people to take action towards what they want to see in the world.”