New Athenaeum Fellows promise vibrant conversations, multiple perspectives

With the new Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum season set to begin next month, three CMC seniors are shaping the speaker series with the entire Claremont McKenna community in mind.

Throughout their CMC experiences, the 2020-21 Woolley Fellows—Christopher Agard ’21, William Frankel ’21, and Nandeeni Patel ’21– have each been inspired by speakers at “the Ath,” a signature program of the College that brings scholars, public figures, thought leaders, artists, and innovators to share their expertise and insights on a wide range of topics.

Now it’s Agard, Frankel, and Patel’s turn to inspire their peers, as the trio will serve behind-the-scenes, curating and booking the speakers. On Ath evenings, they will introduce the program, converse with the speakers, and moderate the online conversation.

Patel, who grew up in nearby Murrieta, is a philosophy, politics, and economics major, with an interest in South Asian affairs. As an Ath Fellow, she’ll call upon skills honed as an interviewer for the student-run podcast, Free Food for Thought and as an international journalism fellow at the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies. She is currently the New Hire manager at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government. Last year, she served as a research intern at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Growing up, Agard lived in cities across the U.S., from Chicago to Atlanta to Portland, Ore. He is a philosophy, politics, and economics major. Last year, Agard served as vice president of the Black Student Association and on the College Programming Board. He also spent a semester abroad at the University of Paris: Pantheon-Sorbonne.

This fall, Frankel will be based at his family home in Shaker Heights, Ohio. A public policy major, Frankel is a Research Assistant at both the Rose Institute of State and Local Government and the Lowe Institute of Political Economy. He also serves as a First-Year Guide and as the Hotline Coordinator for CMC Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence.

“I am so impressed by the Fellows’ resilience and creativity,” said Priya Junnar, director of the Athenaeum. “Pivoting from the typically intense social demands of this role to a virtual environment has not deterred them at all. They now have the additional responsibility of interviewing and moderating conversations in the virtual Ath—which will be accessible to an expanded, broader audience including alumni and parents. But I know that we all will learn and grow from the thoughtful engagement and conversations they are planning with our speakers.”

We spoke to this year’s Ath Fellows to learn their plans and how they’ll surmount the challenge of not being able to gather in-person.

“I am so impressed by the Fellows’ resilience and creativity,” said Priya Junnar, director of the Athenaeum. “Pivoting from the typically intense social demands of this role to a virtual environment has not deterred them at all. They now have the additional responsibility of interviewing and moderating conversations in the virtual Ath—which will be accessible to an expanded, broader audience including alumni and parents. But I know that we all will learn and grow from the thoughtful engagement and conversations they are planning with our speakers.”

We spoke to this year’s Ath Fellows to learn their plans and how they’ll surmount surmount the challenge of not being able to gather in-person.

What does your role as an Ath Fellow mean to you?

Patel: The Ath is a safe space where people from different backgrounds can come discuss ideas, a place where you can experience every type of emotion. It’s also a place where students can find direction in their academic and personal career. Over the years, I’ve met so many interesting people through the Ath, some of who have helped me in getting interesting internships and research opportunities. The Ath sets up students for success in all areas of their lives ranging from interpersonal relationships to career pursuits.

I wanted to get involved so that I could interact personally with the speakers and to provide CMC students in the audience with the same profound experiences that I’ve had as an audience-member.

Coming to the Ath, listening to the speakers, and seeing the Ath Fellows who came before me, inspired me to be that level of student, to have that level of commitment in the mission of the Ath. When I think about my CMC journey, there is no better way to end it than to be an Ath Fellow my senior year.

Agard: I’m interested in actively engaging with my peers, and learning from them. The Ath offers a different way to engage and pursue one’s intellectual curiosity. I’ve been going to the Ath since I was a first-year student, and I tried to go as often as possible. I thought it would be really cool to be involved with that process, determining who gets invited, to discuss their professions, or continue the discussions that students are having. My driving motivation to apply to be a Fellow was to have a hand in creating these conversations for the overall CMC community. I’m also passionate about creating resources for students who come from backgrounds similar to mine.

Frankel: This was something I’ve been wanting to do since before I started my freshman year. I even remember hearing about Ath Fellows on my admission tour. Learning about CMC students’ commitment to the Ath and the discussions that surround the Ath experience, I was immediately interested in CMC.

The Ath really is unique among different college campuses’ organizing institutions, or just among speaker series at any other schools. It’s where you come if you want to talk to your friends and peers about important ideas, to have that free exchange.

I’m especially grateful to work with both Nandeeni and Chris who are so qualified and who I know are going to do such a great job. I will do my best to keep up with them!

How will you face this fall’s challenge of programming for an all-virtual format?

Frankel: We’ll have to be creative, to increase engagement. We’ll need to keep innovating, to make the virtual space somewhere students want to come to and exchange ideas like they normally would on campus.

This semester’s speakers are going to reflect our current national conversations. We’ll be diving right in, with conversations about the upcoming election, public health, and racial justice.

Patel: The Ath being all-virtual has given us an opportunity to bring in a variety of speakers. When I applied to become a Fellow, I jotted down three or four speakers, and I’ve gotten the chance to invite them each personally to the Ath.

Agard: It will be interesting to see how things play out. With everything virtual, there are some benefits to doing things a bit differently. We’re holding fewer Ath sessions each week, but the tradeoff is that we will be more involved with the speakers. We’ll be in a discussion with each of them, asking questions during the Ath sessions, and it will be more like a conversation.

Even if I weren’t an Ath Fellow, I’d go to the virtual Ath. One of the benefits will be that more people will be able to join us virtually, as there will be no limits to the number of people who can attend.

How do you approach assembling a diverse roster of speakers?

Agard: I really like the idea of creating a roster of speakers who are as diverse as possible, whether it’s their political ideology, or the topics they’ll discuss. But it’s also important to reflect racial and ethnic diversity, to have speakers who represent a wide array of backgrounds and walks of life. The goal is to expand what students are exposed to; what students see as legitimate. Because of the atmosphere of the Ath, the professional nature of it, if a speaker comes to the Ath, their beliefs, opinions, and expertise are respected. And I think it’s important to bring in as many people as possible from whom you might learn something new. That new knowledge is something worth listening to.

Frankel: I think it’s important to engage our student body and have democratic input into what the Ath is like. Fostering diversity is part of CMC’s community, so we both need to be mindful about it ourselves and also to make sure students representing all backgrounds are engaged with the Ath.

When my friends found out that I was going to be an Ath Fellow, everyone’s first response was to congratulate me. Their second response was to suggest who to invite. I hope that as Ath Fellows we think of ourselves as representing not only the Ath as an institution but also representing the school and the student body, almost like representatives in student government.

Patel: When I’m considering who to invite as an Ath speaker, I’m looking at if they are an expert in that topic. It’s less about what their opinion is, and more about what their qualifications are. Overall, we are making sure that we are creating a comfortable place for meaningful conversation to be held. We want students to hear both sides of the story and decide for themselves which argument or opinion is most compelling.  

What characteristics make an ideal speaker at the Ath?

Patel: The ideal Ath speaker is one who is very engaging. For example, when Viet Than Nguyen came to discuss his new novel “The Sympathizer,” during the Q&A he gave everyone eye contact. He went to each student who asked a question and gave them the mic personally. I found that type of engagement to be really touching. It was very memorable.

An ideal Ath speaker is also one who leaves you with lingering thoughts, who doesn’t always give firm conclusions about an idea or topic, but provides students with the tools to explore that topic further.

Agard: For me, an ideal Ath speaker is compelling. They can have great ideas, but they need to share them in a way that draws you in. The Ath speakers who stick in my thoughts are the ones who did something unique. Overall, it’s someone who makes themselves memorable, someone who knows how to stand out.

Frankel: This fall, the ideal Ath speaker will have enduring relevance in the virtual format. We’ll be able to play around with expectations of what an Ath event will be like. One of the most engaging speakers I have seen at the Ath was Stephen Kotkin, a historian from Princeton who spoke about the Russian Revolution. I hadn’t been that interested in the topic beforehand, but he didn’t just speak from the podium. He walked around the dining room and engaged students in a Socratic method dialogue. It was really different and brought people in. Taking a risk in presentation like that is a great way to engage the student audience.

Anne Bergman