This past Monday, Mercersburg students gathered in the Simon Theatre for the first endowed lecture of the school year: the Ammerman Family Lecture. School Minister William Whitmore said that the endowment “supports a series of distinctive programs for the Mercersburg Academy community that brings to the community speakers of national renown who have important perspectives on significant issues of the day and the capacity to help young people understand the relevance of such issues in their lives.”
This year's lecture was given by Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, researcher in psychology, Hunter College professor, and published author, most recently of the book Future Tense. She spoke to the evolutionary necessity of anxiety for survival and encouraged the audience to embrace their nervous moments.
Regarding the choice for this year’s speaker, Whitmore said, “Dr. Dennis-Tiwary was selected given her unique approach to anxiety and her previous experience speaking with high school-age students.” He also explained the relevance of Deniis-Tiwary’s field of expertise for Mercersburg students: “Given the prevalence of concerns around anxiety on our campus, and in the wider society, we felt it was important to bring in a speaker who could help us frame these issues in a different way.”
Regarding the substance of the message, many students generally had positive opinions about it. Bingxiu Qin ‘25 said, “The speech was thought-provoking and relevant to my life, as I gained a new perspective on anxiety, which I found helpful in dealing with my stressful schedule.” Alex Van Ess ‘24 said the speech gave him insight on harnessing his anxiety for success. He said, “Rather than thinking of anxiety as something debilitating, I can now try to make it a tool that I can use to get work done efficiently and make it through during stressful or high-pressure situations.”
At the same time, there were some voices that criticized some portions of Dennis-Tiwary’s speech. She was seen by some as overly academic, and prone to minimizing the personal experiences of anxiety and anxiety disorders. Crystal Chiu ‘25 said, “I wish she would have specified that this talk was more about ways to approach anxiety, or even spent some time digging deeper into anxiety disorders.”
During the following day’s Q&A session, Dennis-Tiwary addressed these criticisms directly, going so far as to ask students for feedback on how she could have improved her talk, saying with a smile, “I’m an excellentist, not a perfectionist.” She acknowledged that due to time constraints, she was unable to make her points with as much understanding and empathy as she had wanted. She affirmed her belief that those experiencing disordered anxiety should get the help and support they need, and she offered an analogy to illustrate her point. “Emotions are like waves. They come, and they go, and they rise. You can learn how to swim. You can learn how to surf. You can even learn how to sail. And sometimes [the wave] will flatten you, but that's just being human.”
Following the Q&A, Fawad Jan ‘24 said, “Personally, I really liked it. I play squash and find anxiety to be helpful when I have to play a match. I learned new things, and the Q&A also clarified some views I already had about this topic.”