Huffington Post Managing Editor and Duke alum Jimmy Soni spoke to students at the annual Duke Writes symposium Friday.
Huffington Post Managing Editor and Duke alum Jimmy Soni spoke to students at the annual Duke Writes symposium Friday.

Writers should use their work to influence public conversation, Huffington Post Managing Editor Jimmy Soni, Trinity ’07, urged students Friday.

Writers from a variety of on-campus publications, as well as other interested students, gathered to hear Soni’s keynote speech and participate in workshops at the annual Duke Writes symposium, sponsored by the Thompson Writing Program. This year’s symposium, Compose Yourself: Writing for Change, was intended to show upperclassmen how to use writing to make changes in others’ lives as well as their own.

“People are consuming more media than ever,” Soni said. “If you have something to say—and it’s valuable and worthwhile, and it’s new and it’s fresh, and it offers somebody something that they didn’t know before­—someone is going to pay attention to you. This is possible today, and it probably wasn’t 15 years ago.”

Soni encouraged participants to use writing as a tool to discover their own thoughts on different issues. He described his own experience as a columnist for The Chronicle as an enlightening time that forced him to develop his own distinctive voice.

Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, writing lecturer and director of outreach for the Thompson Writing Program, said she saw Soni as a model for connecting knowledge to the service of society, noting his as a result of his work as a writer in the public sphere and his commitment to increasing the diversity of voices presented on op-ed pages around the world.

“When Jimmy and I discussed his keynote [speech] and workshop, we both were committed to providing undergraduates with more than just sage advice from an alum’s perspective, but actually challenging you all and giving you a jumpstart on crafting your own op-eds,” Ahern-Dodson wrote in an email Sunday.

Ahern-Dodson organized this year’s event after talking with alumni at a five-year reunion. She noted that the alums at the reunion felt that talking about what they were currently writing—ranging from medical school essays to nonprofit grants—helped them respond to the typical reunion question: What are you doing now?

“I wondered what would happen if we turned that question to undergraduates and got them thinking about writing as a tool for affecting change,” she said.

At the end of his workshop, Soni had students generate a list of possible op-ed topics and challenged everyone in the room to bring their ideas to life. For additional motivation, Soni handed out his business card and mentioned the possibility of being featured on The Huffington Post’s online news blog.

Junior Omoye Osehobo signed up for the conference to learn how to properly structure her personal statement for medical school.

“I was also able to take away valuable information from the keynote speaker and the closing speaker,” she said. “Even though the keynote speaker works in the journalism industry, a career path I don’t imagine pursuing, he left me with a couple of thoughts that apply to any career path,” said Osehobo.

Lee Baker, dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, said even students can use writing to make concrete change.

“Writing is the one thing you can use right now in terms of making the change you want to see” he said.