Meet the ’22 -’23 Athenaeum Fellows

2022-2023 Athenaeum Fellows photographed inside the Ath (left to right): Rukmini Banerjee ’24, Abrahan Vasquez ’23, and Miriam Farah ’23
September 12, 2022

The Athenaeum opens minds in fall season

With a wide-ranging slate of speakers to engage, stimulate, teach, entertain, and more—the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum officially launches its fall season on September 12, fully in-person.

The first event features environmental journalist Amanda Little, who will address the intersection of agriculture and sustainability in her talk: The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.

In the days and weeks that follow, the fall schedule comprises an impressive list of luminaries, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Jared Diamond on upheaval; UC Davis law professor Mary Ziegler on reproductive rights; opinion writer Bari Weiss on the new founders the country needs; entrepreneur Alex Ehrlich on access to the banking and financial system; Columbia University’s Timothy Frye on power in Putin’s Russia; Stanford’s Oriana Mastro on China’s “entrepreneurial” foreign policy; journalist and documentarian Jesse Washington on race and sports; cartoonist and MacArthur Fellow Lynda Barry on creativity; CMC professors Jon Shields and Stephanie Muravchik on identity politics; and a visit from alumni journalists Sahil Kapur ’09, Michael Shear ’90, and Elise Viebeck ’09 to recount their experiences covering the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, among many other prominent speakers and guests. See the full schedule here.

“Being back in the ‘Ath’—fully back in person—feels liberating and empowering,” said Director Priya Junnar. “I am so pleased that CMC students can again fully engage with a program unlike any other in American liberal arts education. While an exciting and varied roster like this semester’s might draw us to the Ath, the camaraderie, engaging discussion, and intellectual growth keep us coming back. That’s the magic of the Athenaeum.”

Unique in higher education in terms of the depth, breadth, and the sheer numbers of speakers that visit and enlighten a campus, the Athenaeum provides the CMC community a place for expansive learning outside the classroom. Students, faculty, and staff are invited to join the speaker(s) at a reception and dinner prior to the presentation in the Eggert Dining Room. Students are given preference in the question-and-answer sessions that follow the presentation.

Another unique feature of the Athenaeum is the student leadership opportunity it provides. Student Athenaeum Fellows suggest speakers, host them at the head table, craft and make the formal introductions, and manage the student-led question and answer session that follows the talk. When possible, speakers also spend time in a classroom, meet in small groups with institute students, visit the Soll Center, or give student press interviews.

When fintech journalist Sanjib Kalita, the Athenaeum speaker scheduled for September 15, looked at the fall speaker line-up he shared his reaction on LinkedIn.

“The funny thing is that my mind was blown when I looked on the website’s list of speakers, and the night before, one of my intellectual heroes, Jared Diamond, will be speaking ... Then I saw the list of other speakers including journalists, poets, professors and many more, and truly felt in awe,” he wrote.

That awe is a familiar feeling to many as they begin to understand the deep, varied, rich, and frequent offerings available to the CMC community at the Ath. What started in the late ‘60s in former CMC President George Benson’s living room has grown into a beautiful and iconic gathering space for free intellectual exchange, and a wonderful meal.

The Ath is not just an evening venue. There are lunchtime events and students often congregate in the afternoons to socialize and enjoy tea and sweets.

And Junnar pointed out that the schedule is dynamic—events and speakers will be continuously added as the semester unfolds.

It’s the speakers who get most of the attention at CMC’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, which hosts an impressive list of thinkers, experts, newsmakers, writers, artists—and more, in its iconic venue each academic year. But important support for the programming and execution of the ambitious schedule at the “Ath,” as it’s fondly known, comes from its student leaders, or Ath Fellows.

A highly sought-after role for CMC students, Ath Fellows are critical in helping suggest speakers as well as hosting them during their visits. This includes sitting at the head table with guests and leading the question-and-answer session after the formal presentation. This year’s three “Ath” Fellows are excited about the upcoming season, which launches on September 12, and shared some of their motivations for taking on the role.

Miriam Farah ’23, a public policy and history major from Redondo Beach says she’s attended Ath talks since her freshman year because it gives her the opportunity to learn about new topics without the pressure of grades and assignments. A politics and economics major from the Bay Area, Rukmini Banerjee ’24 knew she wanted to be a Fellow from the moment she first learned about the Ath. Abrahan Vasquez ’23, a biology major from Los Angeles, feels like being an Ath Fellow gives him the opportunity to explore and communicate his academic interests on a more personal level.

Taking on this role is a commitment of intellect, time, and energy—can you explain what drew you to it?

Vasquez: To me, it’s an opportunity to continue pursuing my passion for learning and educating outside the classroom. As a hobby, I make edu-tainment videos on topics ranging from heart disease, the themes of Hamlet, and the value of museums. I’ve been able to explore and communicate my academic interests on a more personal level, and I saw another opportunity for this work at the Ath. I was also drawn to the Ath because of Dr. Atul Gawande’s memorable and motivating talk I attended last fall which inspired me to find a way to give back to CMC, by sharing knowledge.

Farah: This unique learning experience has introduced me to a variety of topics ranging from fiction writing to urban planning as well as topics that I don’t plan on pursuing. All the Ath talks I’ve attended have made me a more knowledgeable student, and I even continue to reference old Ath talks in class. And every time I attend an Athenaeum talk, I brainstorm at least one question to ask the speaker to better engage with the topic.

Banerjee: Getting the opportunity to discuss world events and new ideas with such distinguished professionals and scholars is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and there seems no better way to capitalize on the opportunity than to become an Ath fellow.

Having the opportunity to hear from such a wide range of speakers with varied experiences and expertise seems like a terrific gift in a learning community. Why and how do you feel the Ath matters to CMC as a whole?

Banerjee: Dialogue is at the heart of the CMC curriculum. In almost every class, professors take care to facilitate dialogue and discussion between students. The Ath exemplifies this prioritization of dialogue by serving as a space where CMCers can engage in tough conversations about relevant and pertinent issues. Responsible leadership requires participating in difficult conversations and understanding ideas from a variety of disciplines. The Ath creates the environment where CMCers can learn these skills.

Farah: I think that it’s important for all students to use the Athenaeum as an opportunity to expand their knowledge, even if the talks are not related to their academic or professional interests. Going to Athenaeum events is also a great way to make new friends and network with professors and speakers. Some of my favorite memories at CMC include discussing an Ath talk I just attended with friends and catching up with people at Ath tea during my study breaks. In my experience, Ath events help bring students closer together because of the various programming there.

Vasquez: I see the Ath as one of the ways that CMC prepares students for the real world. I believe the Ath showcases CMC’s commitment to open dialogue in that it provides our community with the opportunity to listen, engage with, and question experts in their fields. Moreover, the Ath provides CMC with in-depth views into issues they might not have known of through perspectives they might not have considered.

The student questions after a speaker’s talk often lead to some of the best moments at the Ath. How does that make you feel about your fellow students?

Farah: I always look forward to the Q&A section because I want to hear all the different ways students interpret the speaker’s talk. I want to students to think critically about all the speakers, even the ones they may agree with. I want my peers to feel comfortable at the Athenaeum to voice their concerns, questions, thoughts, and comments about the speaker’s arguments. I also recognize that, as an undergraduate student, it can be intimidating to stand up in front of everyone to ask an expert a question, but I promise that other people also enjoy hearing questions and answers. There’s nothing to be nervous about!

Banerjee: I always find myself amazed during the Q&A section. Typically, after a talk, I come away with my own thoughts about the content. However, during the Q&A, my eyes are opened to entirely new dimensions and aspects of the talk and it makes me appreciate the diversity of thought and perspective among my peers.

Is there a favorite Ath memory you’d like to share—a speaker, a moment, or experience?

Banerjee: My favorite moment during an Ath event was when I got to sit at the head table with Annette Gordon-Reed. I read her book on Sally Hemmings when I was in high school, so getting to meet her and ask her questions about the old papers I wrote was a surreal experience.

Farah: For me, it was Professor Wallace Cleaves’s talk titled “Recognition, Acknowledgment, and Stewardship: The Challenges and Opportunities for Rematriating Tovaangar.” I sat at the head table for the first time, and I listened to his talk about reviving the Tongva language and culture among the younger generation, which especially resonated with me as a Coptic-Egyptian. The Coptic language is rarely spoken because of Arab colonization and religious discrimination in Egypt, and I had the chance to ask him a question about language revival. In his answer, he mentioned his conversations with Coptic people in Los Angeles about this struggle, which brought to light how different indigenous communities share similar challenges. I hope to help the Athenaeum continue to be a space for students to connect personally with speakers.

Vasquez: Ever since I was a first-year, I hoped to represent CMC through the Ath. But at the same time, I didn’t believe that I could reach that goal as a STEM major. However, these doubts left my mind last fall when I attended, as I mentioned above, the first in-person Ath dinner in over a year, Dr. Atul Gawande’s “On Breakthrough vs Follow-Through Innovation.” His presence showed CMC’s renewed commitment to the sciences and my presence showed my commitment to attend more talks, especially after our previous virtual year. I had the courage to ask him the first question, and he signed a copy of my book (one that’s had tremendous influence on me) after the talk.

Vasquez had one more message for the community: “Don’t let ‘I wish I had gone to the Ath more’ be one of your CMC regrets! Come to the Ath, you never know where you might end up!”

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