Westminster College Student Co-Founds Innovative New Conference 

3/22/2012 
Student News 

Andrew McHughThe life goal of Andrew McHugh, a Westminster College junior from Kirkwood, Missouri, is, in his own words: “to do something amazing.”  He may have already achieved that goal with his role as co-founder of the innovative “What If…?” Conference, which took place for the first time anywhere on the Westminster campus in Fulton, Missouri, Feb. 23, 2012.

This imaginative conference, the brainchild of McHugh and Westminster English Professor Matt Murrie, enrolled 200 people of all walks of life —everyone from professors and students to business leaders and seniors—and brought them together, all with a an equal voice to discuss and explore such “What If” questions as “What if one sentence could change your world? " or “What if time does not exist?”  Each question was introduced by a presenter in an eight minute presentation.  Then a breakout session was held where conference attendees could interact with presenters and each other, sharing ideas and asking additional questions.  After the presentations were over, the presenters and attendees continued their sharing of ideas at a “family style” dinner.

“We wanted these conversations to break down the barriers of age, backgrounds, and differences to bring people together to explore a new way of interacting with our world,” McHugh says.  “We wanted their minds to extend into unknown realms and make them open up to possibilities they have never considered before.”

While the conference is the most significant creation, McHugh has moved forward as an innovator, he long ago embraced the Westminster mission of learning to lead in a way that makes a difference in our world for the future.  An examination of the range of his Westminster experiences quickly explains how McHugh became so passionately involved as a pioneer in this project.  He is President of EcoHouse, a living-learning laboratory on campus where the six student residents try to live as efficiently as possible, exemplifying environmental stewardship and inspiring others to live environmentally responsible lives.  He is President of the Long Term Thinking Club, a group of students, faculty, and staff who explore long range ideas that if implemented would improve our way of life over the next ten thousand years.  Recently he founded and leads the Westminster Bike Club with two other students.  Their goal is to promote cycling and make community bikes available for anyone who wants to use them on campus.  Currently, he and his other club members are refurbishing 20 bicycles in a garage for the project.

The germ of an idea for the “What If…?” Conference actually began in the seminar class of MIS (Management Information Systems) Professor Selcen Phelps two years ago when she talked about the Long Now Foundation, which was the inspiration for the Long Term Thinking Club, and the need for such a club on campus.  McHugh picked up the idea and started the Westminster club in the spring with Dr. Phelps as a faculty advisor. 

Then last year his future became intertwined with Professor Murrie when he interviewed with him to be a mentor.  Professor Murrie took the basic idea for the conference and drafted a proposal which became the basis for a series of regular meetings between the two as their enthusiasm for the project grew.  Gradually, the final format for the conference evolved out of their discussions. 

Westminster College already holds an Undergraduate Scholars Forum, an annual event where students do presentations on their most recent achievements and research in front of the student body.  McHugh and Murrie envisioned their event with much more communal involvement and much less presenter involvement and the ideas discussed would be larger and more significant topics—ideas that could change the world.  By spring the entire Long Term Thinking Club had shifted its focus to planning for the conference. 

At the end of the last school year, the pair hosted a dinner of 30 people—two-thirds students and one-third faculty and staff—asking the attendees to bring potential “What If” ideas for the conference to the dinner gathering.  Several of the ideas posed that evening ended up being topics for the first conference.

Finally, after a year and a half of planning and the support and input of countless people, the conference finally came to fruition.  McHugh admits to make such a dream a reality would have probably not been possible in any other academic setting than Westminster.  Westminster is well known for establishing an atmosphere where students can develop close personal relationships with their professors, knowing their cell phone numbers, calling them by their first names, and sharing meals with them.

“I have so many of the administrators, professors, and staff members to thank for their support in making this conference happen,” says McHugh.  “I don’t know of any other place where I not only know my professors on a first name basis but can walk right into their offices at any time and share ideas as intellectual equals.  I am particularly grateful for the huge role Professors Murrie and Phelps have played in this project.  I am really fortunate to have so many people on our team in getting this conference up and running”

Although the conference is over, Andrew McHugh’s big ideas about what he has envisioned are far from finished.  This first conference was so successful in terms of attendance and feedback from the participants that Andrew and Professor Murrie are already planning to increase the size and scope of next year’s conference.  The two are also planning some min-events throughout the year to keep the “What If…?” concept alive and well in the minds and imaginations of the general public.  Then in the future, Andrew wants to travel each year from one major city to another holding a conference and gradually making it a national event.  Andrew McHugh’s days of posing the question “What If…?” may be just beginning.

For more information on this fascinating project, call Andrew McHugh at 314-620-4243 and Professor Matt Murrie at 636-221-5883 or Rob Crouse, Westminster Director of Media and Public Relations at 573-291-9399.

For more information about the “What If…?” Conference, go to www.thewhatifconference.com.