CMC has a rich tradition of attracting students from all over the world and that international composite is now represented by its Athenaeum Woolley Fellows for 2015-16 – Henrietta Toivanen ’17 and Shang Xuan Yeo ’16. Henrietta, an international relations and biophysics major, hails from Finland, while Xuan, an international relations and economics major, comes from Singapore.
“The Athenaeum is one of my favorite things about CMC,” said Henrietta. “It's a unique resource for us students, and I wanted to contribute to it and continue the great tradition at CMC.”
For Xuan, the prospect of hosting some of the most interesting and inspiring people in the world – and the chance to learn from them – is the most enticing aspect of being an Ath Fellow.
“Besides, having personally benefited so much from all that the Ath has to offer over the past few years, I wanted to be an Ath Fellow so that I could help to shape a program and an atmosphere in the next year that the Ath community will continue to find enjoyable and enriching,” he said.
According to Priya Junnar, Interim Director of the Athenaeum, the pool of finalists was very competitive with several candidates demonstrating the required intellectual curiosity, enthusiasm and diplomatic skills as well as a strong commitment to the Athenaeum's programming and mission.
Junnar said that a special note of thanks should be given to Professors Hilary Appel and Patrick Ferree; Athenaeum Fellows Shannon Miller ‘16 and Dante Toppo ’15; and Ath Manager David Edwards for serving on the final selection committee.
We sat down with Henrietta and Xuan recently and asked them (in our modified take on the “Proust Questionnaire”) about guilty pleasures, what they miss most about home and what 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?
Henrietta: Sigrid Kaag. She's a Dutch diplomat working for the United Nations and currently serves as the Special Coordinator for Lebanon. Previously, she led the joint mission between the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for disarming Syria from its chemical weapons stockpile. I wrote a paper on this topic last year and found her work extremely interesting and inspiring.
Xuan: Aung San Suu Kyi, whose struggle, courage and moral strength have inspired, and continue to inspire, millions of people worldwide.
CMC: Realistically speaking, who do you think you might have a shot at getting?
Henrietta: I have loved seeing writers and artists speak about their work at the Ath, so I look forward to these events next year. One person who I would be really excited to invite as a speaker would be Lynsey Addario, a photojournalist with a very interesting background. She has worked in countries such as Afghanistan, Turkey, Iraq, Darfur and the Republic of Congo and has covered a wide range of topics related to conflicts and human rights issues. It would be amazing to bring someone like her to the Ath.
Xuan: I would love to have Samar Yazbek come speak at the Ath. She is a Syrian writer and journalist who authored A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution. Yazbek witnessed the beginning of the Syrian uprising firsthand and notes that women were among the first who went out and protested. I took a class called War last semester -- probably the best class I have taken during my time at CMC so far -- and something that stood out to me throughout the semester was how severely under-represented women were in many of the narratives that we read. I found that rather troubling and would deeply appreciate having "a woman in the crossfire" at the Ath.
On a different note, I think Alex Klein, the co-founder of Kano, would be a great speaker to have as well. Klein was named to “Forbes' 30 Under 30” List this year in the field of education for his creation of a product that teaches children how to build and code a computer in a way that is as simple as assembling LEGOs. I think the fact that he is just a few years older than most of us would go a long way in inspiring the belief that we, too, can start making a difference in whatever communities we are a part of today.
CMC: What does the Ath mean to you personally?
Henrietta: The Ath has been such an important part of my CMC experience. Ever since my first semester here, I've attended the dinners regularly and have had the chance to see so many fascinating speakers. I'm curious about too many things, and the Ath gives CMC students the opportunity to get immersed in a topic for a night and hear from an expert in that field. At the same time, you get to have a great dinner with friends, professors and other people from the campus community and get to know people you wouldn't necessarily otherwise have a chance to interact with.
Xuan: My first experiences at the Ath were a complete cultural shock. Having spent my entire pre-CMC life in Singapore, I had grown accustomed to an environment where challenging authority was pretty much a faux pas. Hence, to say that I was initially surprised by how my peers engaged with and challenged the speakers at the Ath as deeply, thoughtfully and sometimes audaciously as they did is an understatement! Yet, I eventually came to fall in love with this community in which diverse ideas and viewpoints can be discussed freely and respectfully. In fact, the Ath is where I have had some of my most memorable conversations during my time at CMC. I see the Ath as a representation of the many reasons why I love CMC -- passionate and engaged students, personal interactions with faculty and staff, great food and the list goes on.
CMC: What led you to enroll at CMC?
Henrietta: I actually never visited CMC before deciding to enroll and move to California. From the other side of the Atlantic, the school seemed to have it all – amazing academic opportunities, great campus community, and, of course, perfect weather. It wasn't a difficult decision to make. In addition, I was really fortunate to receive the Interdisciplinary Science Scholarship, which allowed me to make the choice in the first place.
Xuan: When the common application was due, I was undergoing training to be a naval officer in the Singapore Navy and was unable to devote as much time as I would have liked to the application process (both in terms of thinking about which colleges to apply to and to actually filling out the applications). Hence, to be completely honest, I very briefly went through college rankings in US News and based my decision on which schools to apply to on length of written application, gut feeling and weather. After I completed Midshipman training, I had a chance to conduct more in-depth research about the various colleges I had applied to. That was when I realized, as clichéd as this sounds, that CMC was a perfect fit for me. Among other reasons, its pragmatic approach to the liberal arts assured me that I was coming to a college that will help me become someone capable of contributing to the world in positive and important ways.
CMC: What’s your favorite guilty pleasure?
Henrietta: Watching “Homeland.”
Xuan: A thick, juicy slice of bak kwa. Wikipedia defines it as a “Chinese salty-sweet dried meat product similar to jerky.” I define it as a slice of heaven.
CMC: What is the best bit of advice you ever received?
Henrietta: From my roommate, Weronika: “You do you, babe.”
Xuan: “Be faithful and consistent in the little things.” Several people very dear to me have given me this same piece of advice at different points in my life. I tend to gravitate towards the “big” moments in life, forgetting that it is my response to the seemingly little, insignificant and mundane that truly defines who I am.
CMC: Who (past or present) would you most like to model yourself after?
Henrietta: What really inspires me are people who are ready to work hard and are not looking for the easy way out. It's so inspiring to see that people invest themselves personally in what they find important and even put themselves at risk following their beliefs. There are a lot of great role models out there who I look up to, but I think there are also so many CMC students who fit this description.
Xuan: I can't identify one single individual; there are many people whom I look up to and who have traits that I would like to emulate. One thing they share in common, though, is that they are all servant leaders. I believe that leaders who truly and positively change the world are, first and foremost, servants; they are driven not by a desire for fame or recognition but by a desire to serve their respective communities.
CMC: What’s your favorite book/movie/tune that you’ve read, seen or heard?
Henrietta: One film that I've seen more times than I can count is “Breakfast at Tiffany's.” And for music, I really love listening to live performances, regardless of the genre! I'm hoping to have more opportunities to go to music events in Los Angeles.
Xuan: “3 Idiots.” I have watched this movie three times, and each time it has left me in tears. As enlightening as it is emotional and entertaining, it has challenged me to rethink time and again what “success” really entails.
CMC: Do you have a personal hero?
Henrietta: I could make a long list of people that I look up to, both from the past and from the current day. Of the people I know personally, a very important personal hero would be my brother, Henri. He is easily the bravest person I know.
Xuan: My paternal grandmother. Alzheimer's Disease has caused her to become a shadow of the woman who watched me grow up, but still, she is the kindest, most caring and most sacrificial person I know.
CMC: What is the biggest difference you’ve experienced (so far) between life at CMC and your home country?
Henrietta: There are so many differences between Finland and the U.S.! I would say the biggest differences have to do with people and the way social interactions work. Finns are very different from Americans, although it's always difficult to make generalizations. In terms of language, English and Finnish function very differently, and the norms of communication are very distinct. There are also a lot of more intangible contrasts between the way people interpret discussions and interactions in the U.S. and in Finland.
Xuan: Eating rice with a fork rather than with a spoon (I still don't see how eating rice with a fork makes any sense). Being able to buy chewing gum in convenience stores (yes, the rumor is true: the sale of chewing gum is prohibited in Singapore). And having a friend whom I had just met for the first time laugh at me for pronouncing hoodie as "who-dee" at the Huntley.
CMC: Outside of family, what do you miss most about home?
Henrietta: The beautiful summer evenings when the sun doesn't set until after midnight. It's really magical! However, I really haven't felt homesick at all since coming to CMC. I have adjusted really well here and I will always have the chance to visit home.
Xuan: Going on late Friday night runs to my neighborhood hawker center for a bowl of piping hot bak chor mee (Singaporean minced meat noodles) complete with a mug of fresh sugarcane juice, before taking a leisurely stroll back to the shoe box-sized apartment I call home.