Meet the new Athenaeum Fellows – Wesley Whitaker ’18 and Isabel Lilles ’18

The Athenaeum is pleased to present the Woolley Fellows for the 2017-18 school year: Wesley Whitaker ’18 and Isabel Lilles ’18.

Whitaker, who was born in the Bay Area but now lives in Sacramento, says that after “flirting with majoring in government,” he decided on a Philosophy and Public Affairs dual major.

“I redirected after taking Professor Schroeder’s life-changing intro course,” Whitaker said. “Since then, I have thoroughly enjoyed courses across the discipline while continuing to take public policy classes.”

Lilles is pursuing a dual major in International Relations and Literature. She was born and raised in Manila, and grew up with four sisters and one brother.

“I love this combination,” Lilles said, “because they each expose me to the different sides of life’s binaries - the scientific versus the artistic, the universal versus the individual, and the logical versus the emotional.”

Lilles is also a certified Zumba instructor and teaches physical education classes twice a week – with a playlist of mostly Shakira and Enrique Iglesias.

“My CMC bucket list is still quite long,” she said, “but one item at the top of that list is to get Priya (Junnar, the Athenaeum Director) to come to at least one of my Zumba classes.” Junnar, admittedly wary of Zumba, says she may consider a private class or “a class in the dark.”

We sat down with Whitaker and Lilles recently and asked them (in our modified take on the “Proust Questionnaire”) about guilty pleasures, what they miss most about home, the worst piece of advice they ever got, and who they’d like to see scheduled at the Ath during their tenure.

CMC: Who would you like to book as your dream speaker at the Ath?

Whitaker: My favorite photographer and visual artist, Taryn Simon. She is a Guggenheim fellow and her work has been showcased across the globe, including Prague, where I was lucky enough to visit her exhibition while studying photography abroad my sophomore year. Multiple times the ushers inside the gallery asked me to quiet down after gasping in amazement.

Lilles: Aziz Ansari, the Indian-American actor and comedian, widely known for his role as Tom Haverford in the NBC series Parks and Recreation. He also plays the leading role as Dev Shah on the Netflix Series Master of None, which he created, wrote and starred in. Not only is Aziz Ansari hilarious and would make for the best Ath head table dinner conversation, but through his stand-up comedy he addresses heavier issues regarding race, gender, and love in a way that is not polarizing or aggressive, but empathetic and understanding.

CMC: Realistically speaking, who do you think you might have a shot at getting?

Whitaker: I would love to bring the freshly-appointed editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, Elaine Welteroth, to the Ath. As the youngest and first woman of color to be named editor in Conde Nast’s 107-year history, she has not hesitated to innovate and transform the publication. She has shaped Teen Vogue into a powerful platform for progressive social and political change by recognizing that even though Teen Vogue’s readers are primarily interested in pop culture and fashion, they also care deeply about the broader issues facing society.

Lilles: I think that we might have a shot at bringing Jennifer Tejada, the CEO of tech start-up PagerDuty, to the Ath. She is one of a small number of women who hold the CEO position in Silicon Valley. It would be amazing to have her come and talk not only about her company’s incident resolution system or the most recent innovations in technology, but also about her experiences being a female leader in a male-dominated industry.

CMC: What does the Ath mean to you personally?

Whitaker: The Ath has played a large part in my CMC experience since before I was even accepted. I was brought to a talk as a prospective student and immediately fell in love with the space. The caliber of the speakers, the engagement of the students with the topics, and the crucial role it plays on campus for discourse highlighted exactly what I wanted to receive from my college experience. Every time I come to the Ath, I learn something new and leave with a fresh perspective. I hope to do everything possible so every student has the same experience.

Lilles: When I was growing up, every time my family sat down for dinner, my parents would ask my siblings and I the following question: what was something new that you learned today? Through this routine, I developed a thirst for knowledge and a passion for learning. Fast forwarding to when I toured CMC the summer before my senior year, my tour guide referred to the Ath as the “crown jewel” of CMC. After attending a couple of talks my first semester, the belief system I had grown up with were affirmed by the Ath and its speaker series. To be able to walk into a room, listen to someone tell a story, and leave not being the same (whether you feel inspired or frustrated, reassured, or challenged) is an enriching experience that will always mean more than I can effectively express in words.

CMC: What led you to enroll at CMC? 

Whitaker: The small class sizes, range of interdisciplinary majors, and the emphasis on applying classroom learning to the real world were all big factors for me. What ultimately sealed the deal was visiting CMC as a prospective student. I was also amazed by the warmth of all the students and the ways they talked about how CMC was preparing them for professional success and shaping them into engaged citizens.

Lilles: The first thing that came to my mind was the California sunshine and CMC’s proximity to Disneyland. But upon further thought, I believe it was a pairing of the small size and the liberal arts education that led me to enroll at CMC. In terms of size, I love that I see at least one familiar face in every dining hall, class, and event. I love that all my professors take the time to get to know me as a student and as a person; I am not just another name to check on their roster. CMC’s smaller size allows for a more tightly knit community, which has quickly become a family to me. In terms of the liberal arts aspect, I will forever be grateful to CMC for requiring me to take classes outside my major, and therefore outside my comfort zone.

CMC: What’s your favorite guilty pleasure and why? 

Whitaker: Scrolling through Dogspotting, my favorite Facebook group. The whole purpose of the group is to post pictures and videos of dogs that you find while out and about. There are rules, however; you are not allowed to post known dogs. So if I ever need a pick-me-up, I just open up my phone and am bombarded with cute doggos.

Lilles: Eating French fries dipped in vanilla ice cream. I know it’s disgusting, but it’s the perfect marriage of sweet and savory, and unites the fried and creamy. It’s magical.

CMC: Who (past or present) would you most like to model yourself after and why?

Whitaker: Michael Grouskay ’17. Not only would this be extremely easy as I am already mistaken for him constantly, but he is also an outstanding Ath fellow and human being.

Lilles: I could not pick just one person. I have learned so much from the people I read about and the people I have surrounded myself with that if I were to model myself after someone, it would be someone who collectively possessed the qualities of all these great people in my life.

CMC: What’s your favorite book/movie/tune that you’ve read, seen, or heard and why? 

Whitaker: My favorite book is Illusions by Richard Bach. It chronicles the journey of a modern day messiah and explores the limits of human ability to shape our own realities. Aside from the beautifully concise prose, I think it deeply touches on the big questions of why we are here and what we hope to achieve in our short time on Earth.

Lilles: My favorite film of all time is Scent of a Woman. The film follows the developing relationship between Frank, a blind, retired lieutenant colonel, and Charlie, a student looking forward to going to college. It is a beautiful story that simultaneously addresses and challenges life’s biggest question: why?

CMC: Do you have a personal hero?

Whitaker: My personal hero is – and I don’t care if this is a cop-out – my mom. She is the strongest person I know, and I would not be where I am today without all that she has done for me. Her love and support have given me the confidence to pursue any opportunity I can, including this role.

Lilles: My personal hero is my brother, Ayrton. Even though he is two years younger than me, he is wise beyond his years and mine combined. Ayrton is incredibly intellectual - he has the biggest vocabulary of anyone I know, and he has the deductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes. But Ayrton is also the most loyal and loving person - be it a zombie apocalypse or a broken heart, there is no obstacle my brother cannot help me face.

CMC: Outside of family, what do you miss most about home?

Whitaker: My first reaction is to say my two lovely cats because I miss them dearly, but they really are part of the family. So instead, I would have to say cooking and grilling for my mom is the piece of home that I miss the most. Almost every summer night, you can find me grilling steak, salmon, or chicken with roasted veggies.

Lilles: The food. Filipino food is the most underrated cuisine. It’s not for the picky or the faint-hearted, and definitely not for the vegetarians/vegans of the world, but wow is it delicious.

CMC: What is your favorite catchphrase?

Whitaker: “What’s the sitch?” –Kim Possible

Lilles: “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” –Don Corleone, The Godfather

CMC: What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

Whitaker: It comes from the essay “Knowing What’s Nice” that Kurt Vonnegut wrote for In These Times: "I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"

Lilles: The best piece of advice I have ever received is from my dad. Whenever I am going through a rough time or am on the brink of giving up trying to get through an obstacle, my dad always says, “malayo sa bituka.” This Tagalog saying translates to “far from the gut.”

CMC: What’s the worst piece of advice you ever received?

Whitaker: “If attacked by a mob of clowns, go for the juggler.”

Lilles: “If you tape your second and third toes when you wear heels, it will hurt less.” Apparently taping these particular toes is supposed to distribute your weight more evenly, but I have tried it multiple times and I think it hurts just as bad as when I do not tape them. With the added discomfort of having something plasticy between your toes, I do not recommend this piece of advice to anybody.

CMC: Do you think you’ll be nervous introducing speakers at the Ath this year? If so, how do you plan to combat the butterflies?

Whitaker: I am actually a very introverted person, so introducing Ath speakers will be somewhat of a new challenge for me. But I do know that I will be surrounded by friends who will forgive my stutters, hopefully.

Lilles: I think it would be a little bit concerning if I was not at all nervous to introduce Ath speakers. But hopefully, with the support of my partner in crime, Wes, and with tons of practice and a sense of humor, I’ll be able pull it off.