Trevor Noah Talks Comedy, Innovation, and Equity with UMich Engineering Students

If Trevor Noah could grant one wish, he wouldn’t wish for more money, success, or even more wishes.

Instead, he told students at the University of Michigan that he would like something “crazy.”

“I wish the world had this weird system where anytime, anywhere, you could be taken out of your body and you had to live with someone else for an indefinite period of time,” Noah said. “I wonder how they would treat (other) people knowing they could be them on any given day.”

Noah, 38-year-old South African comedian and host of The daily show, offered life advice — and humor, of course — to UM engineering students while talking about his 2016 autobiography “Born a Crime.” He gave the equivalent of an intimate “fireside chat” from the stage of a crowded Hill Auditorium and returned to Hill after sunset to perform on his feet. The comedy show was a leg of his ongoing “Back to Abnormal” world tour and marked the first time Noah appeared live at the University.

After the fireside chat, which was exclusively for engineering students, Noah hosted a comedy show in the Hill Auditorium that drew over 3,000 attendees, more than 1,100 of whom were UM students. The show featured a comedic take on US and UK politics, the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

First-year engineering students in 2021 and 2022 were invited to read Noah’s “Born a Crime” as part of the Common Reading Experience program before setting foot on campus and starting their first classes. Since 2013, the program was created to give new students an easy way to start conversations with their peers. The literary selection has changed from year to year, but over the past two summers the engineering students have started their careers as Wolverines by reading Noah’s book about growing up in apartheid South Africa. .

Friday’s conference was specifically for engineering students who occupied the ground floor and mezzanine floor of the Hill Auditorium, with more than 2,000 seats in total. At the conference, Alec D. Gallimore, Dean of Engineering Robert J. Vlasic, introduced Sita Syal, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, who led the conversation with Noah.

Gallimore explained to the crowd why the College of Engineering wanted to bring Noah to campus to speak to students. He mentioned that Noah speaks eight different languages ​​- English, Xhosa, Zulu, Tsonga, South Sotho, Tswana, Afrikaans and German – and was listed as one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2018.

“The shared reading experience creates an opportunity for class bonding and engaging discussions even before students arrive on campus,” Gallimore said. “Our goal is to complement our technical excellence with insights from other disciplines such as the humanities and the arts and to broaden understanding of equity by cultivating the global perspective we call this holistic approach to our work: l people-oriented engineering.”

Syal asked how Noah balances humor and social sensitivity when discussing controversial topics in his comedic routines. Noah said he uses comedy to overcome the daily challenges that come with “being human” and to contextualize his individually lived experiences.

“I try to tap into the paradox of being human,” Noah said. “The paradox of being human is being able to be at a party with your friends while your grandfather is sick in the hospital. Existing in the honesty of this paradox is often what helps me find a balance (in comedy).

Syal also asked Noah what he thinks engineers, in particular, can do to advocate for a more inclusive and equitable world. Noah advised students to tackle the larger structural issues that exist in society.

“We get so caught up in individual issues that we don’t realize there’s a structural failure,” Noah said. “Engineering is about how each part affects the other.”

Young engineer Natalie Hazapis attended both Noah’s lecture and his comedy. She said Noah’s “fireside chat” was particularly inspiring to her about the positive social impact she could have on her community as an engineer in the future.

“Hearing Trevor Noah talk about his experiences and perspectives was inspiring and empowering,” Hazapis said. “The conversation got me thinking about the value of different perspectives, especially when it comes to engineering. I left motivated to do meaningful work with my degree and eager to expose myself to new cultures.

Sophomore engineering student Vijaya Kukutla couldn’t get tickets to the evening comedy show, but she got a chance to hear Noah speak at the exclusive engineering lecture plus early in the day. She said reading “Born a Crime” before starting freshman year last fall was her first introduction to Noah, and the book made her think about engineers’ responsibility to make the world a better place than they know it. ‘they found.

“Engineering has a lot of power and can change people’s lives for the better,” Kukutla said. “I think the underlying message in what he was saying was to have empathy for people.”

The show ended with a thunderous standing ovation for Noah. He concluded the presentation by offering some advice to students regarding obtaining a university degree and entering the professional world.

“If you base your life on any moment and outcome, your choice will always depend on how it turns out,” Noah said. “(When you say) if it happens I’ll be happy, it means that if it doesn’t happen you won’t be happy… But when you remember that traveling is what you should be passionate, you will be happy.

Daily News Editors Roni Kane and Shannon Stocking can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]