Leslie Odom Jr. Kicks off Student Engagement Lecture Series

by Alexa Schmidt & Jilleen BarrettEditor and Asst. Arts & Entertainment Editor

The Student Engagement fall lecture series kicked off with a virtual visit from Leslie Odom Jr., on Sept. 3 via Google Meet. The event was open to anyone with a manhattan.edu email address, including alumni, and about 140 people attended. Odom Jr. is most known for playing the role of Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” which opened off Broadway in 2015.

Odom Jr. answered questions for a little under an hour. JR Caldwell and Andy Bauer, professors in the performing arts department, and student moderators facilitated the conversation. Topics included but were definitely not limited to personal experiences, pieces of advice he would give to anyone, technical problems one can encounter in the theater and some singing. 

Many students including Anna Woods referred to Odom Jr.’s lecture as “the highlight of 2020”. ANNA WOODS / THE QUADRANGLE

Senior Jenn Bueti, the president of Singers, kicked off the discussion. Bueti has been a fan of Odom Jr. since high school, and connected to him as an individual, as well as the story he was telling. When presented with the opportunity to interview him, she came up with a list of questions she’s been itching to ask.

“I thought long and hard about the main points he was getting across in the autobiography [“Failing Up”] and tried to come up with relevant questions for an audience who have and have not read the book,” Bueti said. “Also I thought he has been asked so many questions about working on “Hamilton” that I tried to switch them up and I was more interested in learning about Leslie than anything else. He is such an inspirational and intricate man, it was such an honor.”

When asked what his “security blanket” was, and how he knew everything would work itself out, Odom Jr. responded with advice he was given from his mentor. 

“I was about to turn 30 years old. At this point I made my Broadway debut as you probably know, at 17 years old when I went into “Rent” on Broadway and I’d done a bunch of TV after graduating college and still, I was tired of the up and down,” Odom Jr. said. “I was tired of the uncertainty that can come along with this business. And I was really looking to do something else with my life. 

“And I met with my mentor and he said he heard me out and he said, ‘okay, you can quit, you can do something else. That’s, that’s no problem. I’m sure we can talk about some other ways that you can use these skills. But I’d love to see you try first. Because you try before you quit.’ And as smart as I knew he was I just never heard something so ridiculous in my life.”

His mentor said, “You can make things happen for yourself,” and that is the advice Odom Jr. has carried with him since. 

“And I have to tell you, I have not stopped working in nine years,” Odom Jr. said. “And that is not just because the phone has been ringing that whole time. I tell you, I’m never sitting at home waiting for two rings even now. I’m always working on my own projects, creating my own stuff. And so that was the best piece of advice I remember. God that was amazing.” 

In the age of social media and constant activity, Odom Jr. was careful to touch upon taking the time for yourself and well-being. 

“There’s just times where you have to be diligent, you know, you check in with yourself and you know when you’ve been on that phone too much, when you’ve been focused on a screen too long,” Odom Jr. said. “It has to be intentional, mindful, purposeful about those times that you shut the phone off. And you take into nature, you go on a hike, you go to the park, give yourself an hour, I’m not going to worry about the phone or now or I’m going to go check in with a friend… So much of what I do is about output. And so I have to be mindful of the times when my well is drying, I need some input.”

Overall, the level of excitement within the Google meet was high. Julianna Finnerty, a senior Business Management major, felt the heat of this excitement after Odom Jr. noticed a comment she sent about her custom shoes.

“Who just said they paint custom shoes?” he asked. “Paint me some shoes!” 

Finnerty has been painting custom shoes for about a year and advertises them on her Instagram @finnscustoms. She has been a fan of Odom Jr. since his “Hamilton” years and loves his album “Mr.”

“I knew when I heard of the opportunity to chat with him through MC Student Engagement that I wanted to see if he wanted me to make him a pair of shoes,” Finnerty said. “As for a design for him I would really love to hear from him what he would like. I was thinking maybe obviously “Hamilton” or something to do with his album but whatever design he would like I would love to bring that to life for him.”

John Bennett, the director of Student Engagement, believes that the lecture series is one thing that cannot be taken away from students during a time where a normal college life is almost unrecognizable.

“We tried to make sure to make it as personal as possible,” he said. “That starts with it being hosted by members of our community, but also, we made sure that there would be a live chat option so that all students could interact with the speaker and type questions in to ask them, while also seeing their name pop up on the screen.”

Anthony Bradley, the executive vice president of the student body, agrees.

“The lecture series will not change much now that it is online. Granted, nothing will beat sitting in-person with a great speaker, but the content and thought-provoking talk will still be the same,” he said. 

Though the lecture series is different this fall, Bennett has hope that students will be just as engaged with it as usual. 

“We are supposed to get autographed pictures after the fact that we’ll be giving out to students for attending,” he said. “So they should still be able to get a cool, tangible momento of the event.”

Finnerty honors many famous fig- ures in her custom designed shoes that she has been making since 2019, and is excited to make a pair for Odom Jr. JULIANNA FINNERTY / COURTESY

Odom Jr. emphasized the importance of human connection and keeping the arts alive, even if through a virtual platform. 

“We’re trying to get through this moment, we will gather in spaces again together,” Odom Jr. said. “But in the meantime, we have to be creative. We have to figure this out. We create our way out of any box, any box that people try to place us into, so you can do it. I look forward to seeing how you guys find a way to still be vital and make necessary art because we certainly need the art.”