When Alyea Pierce graduates in May, it will be with the confidence that she left her mark at Rutgers University.
An accomplished spoken word poet with a passion for leadership, the 24-year-old lent her public speaking talents to foster the university’s Mark Leadership Conference for five years – growing it from a gathering of about 170 students to this year’s sold-out crowd of 530. The annual conference encourages students to consider the impact they want to have on the world and provides an opportunity for them to cultivate passions, develop skills and network with industry professionals.
“I’m all about inspiring students to be themselves and to fight for what they want to be in life. Don’t be afraid to leave your legacy,” said Pierce, who is studying for a master’s in college student affairs at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education. “This conference has this contagious energy. I wanted to continue this energy and really connect one on one with individuals. My goal was to make sure everyone had a place in the conference.”
When a broken collarbone sidelined Pierce from playing soccer at 13, poetry became her outlet. She later watched a Knicks Poetry Slam and was awed by the performances. Pierce quickly established herself as a rising star, by participating in several highly acclaimed competitions from the east to the west coast including the 2010 Urban Word Slam Finals, the 2011 New York Knicks Finals, and the 2011 and 2012 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.
She is the self-published author of Every Stranger Deserves A Poem, a book compiled of short stories and original poetry, and has performed her work at the Apollo Theater, Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theater, as well as Columbia University, Kean University, TEDx Rutgers and more than 75 other events at Rutgers University.
Pierce’s style is intimate. Her cadence and expressive delivery draw viewers in, making them feel as if she is speaking only with them. To achieve her nuanced performance style and memorize lengthy poems that often clock in at nearly five minutes, Pierce will eat, sleep and breathe each poem – repeating it in the mirror 50 times a day, listening to recordings of her reciting it.
“You are your biggest critic,” said Pierce, who describes herself as an introvert. “So, if you can look yourself in the eye saying this raw, heartfelt poem, you can say it in front of 2,000 people.”
After making a name for herself performing around campus with the Rutgers poetry collective, Verbal Mayhem, Pierce was tapped to give a five-minute talk about finding her voice through poetry as an ignite student speaker at the university’s first Mark Leadership Conference in 2012.
“It was at that moment when I stood on stage with professionals that I realized ‘I can do this for real,’ ” she said of her first experience melding performance with leadership.
By the following year the Somerset resident was leading the TEDx-inspired motivational event as master of ceremonies. As a graduate intern in the department of Leadership and Experiential Learning, Pierce also worked behind the scenes, advising eight student speakers and assisting a volunteer team of 50.
“I’ve learned event planning, advising, supervision, how to facilitate,” said Pierce, who’s parlayed her Mark experience into other coaching and speaking gigs, including TEDx talks around the country and at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. “I’ve learned to think big and out of the box and believe there is a way, you just have to find it and do it.”
Robyn Ginese Director of the department of Leadership and Experiential Learning and Pierce’s adviser said she has been essential to both the planning of the Mark Leadership Conference and the spirit of the Leadership and Experiential Learning team.
“Alyea brings with her such talent, poise, insight and natural instinct to lead and yet balances it with humility and a willingness to grow,” said Ginese. “She finds ways to adapt her leadership style to the needs of others and is sure to make an immeasurable impact on the lives of all those fortunate to cross her path.”
Once she leaves Rutgers, where she also earned her BA in communications with a minor in English and certificate in Latino and Hispanic, Caribbean studies, Pierce sees herself continuing to guide students at a university level – either at Rutgers or another local university – on the ways in which they can incorporate the arts into leadership roles.
Maybe if more children were given 15 minutes a day to free write, the way she had been in seventh- grade language arts, creative self-expression would be viewed as a gift, not a chore. Initially put off by her teacher’s amorphous assignment, Pierce said it is what ultimately led her to write poetry.
“We need to express ourselves whether in technology, the sciences, math or architecture. We’re craving to make people feel something. I think that is what art is,” she said. “Why can’t STEM learning include free writing? Why can’t that include learning how to speak publicly and having the confidence to go up in front of a room and improvise? We don’t give the time and space for students to try to be creative.”
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