An evening at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum represents the epitome of the thriving intellectual life at CMC. And this year’s speakers program promises to deliver an illustrious roster of thought leaders and innovators, with deep knowledge and expertise in areas ranging from public health and service, to domestic and global political analysis, as well as the transformative impact of the arts.
In addition to the Ath’s in-person return, 2021-22 programming is especially enriched by the treasured venue’s central role in CMC’s 75th Anniversary celebration. This academic year, the Ath will host a yearlong curated series of special 75th Anniversary Distinguished Speakers focused on three themes: Civilization and Commerce, Unity and Division, and Science and Policy.
The Ath’s prestigious fall lineup debuted on Sept. 13 with 75th Anniversary speaker Atul Gawande, M.D., M.P.H, practicing surgeon, writer, and public health leader. Gawande’s topic was “On Breakthrough vs. Follow-Through.”
“Speakers in the anniversary series demonstrate intellectual leadership, professional distinction, originality of perspective and voice, and thoughtful engagement of issues from varied perspectives and views,” said Priya Junnar, director of the Athenaeum. “Equally importantly, the 75th Anniversary Distinguished Speakers personify a commitment to responsible leadership in their area of expertise.”
And, much to the joy of the CMC community, receptions, dinners, and presentations will be held on campus at the Ath, adhering to all of the College’s health and safety protocols. For the time being, Ath receptions will be held outdoors; meals will be served outdoors; and during the indoor presentation, all guests must be masked.
As is custom at the student-led Ath, events will be hosted by a trio of Woolley Ath Fellows—Maya Ghosh ’22, Maria Gutierrez-Vera ’22, and Maya Kurkhill ’23—who will introduce guests and help moderate the Q&A that follows each talk.
Junnar is excited for how this year’s fellows will “bring intellectual depth, commitment to viewpoint diversity, and demonstrated passion for the values of the Athenaeum. I am so impressed with their thoughtful approach and innovative ideas on how to navigate the current circumstances. I am confident that they will steward a wonderful and exciting year at the Athenaeum.”
Ghosh, who is from Dallas, is pursuing a dual major in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and Economics-Accounting. She is a project manager at the Rose Institute, and also works for the Roberts Environmental Center, Mock Trial, and The Forum.
Gutierrez-Vera is from nearby Whittier, Calif. She is studying Public Policy and American Studies. Gutierrez-Vera has worked with the Rose Institute on their Redistricting team and Video Voter series. She is also involved with the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship and works at the Center for Writing and Public Discourse.
Kurkhill is a native Southern Californian and a Government major. As a research assistant with the Rose Institute, she worked on the Inland Empire Outlook and the Miller-Rose Initiative Database. She is also a fellow with the Debate Union.
We spoke to Ghosh, Gutierrez-Vera, and Kurkhill to learn their perspectives on this year’s Ath programming, as well as what they think makes an ideal speaker.
Why were you interested in becoming an Ath Fellow?
Maya Ghosh ’22: I was interested in becoming an Ath Fellow to support one of the most important places of discourse on our campus. It is a space to be heard, be challenged, and open yourself up to different ideas and beliefs. Over the past three years, the Ath has been fundamental to my personal and academic growth, and I look forward to ensuring that the Ath retains its open, honest, and inviting characteristics. I also was interested in becoming an Ath Fellow to serve as a representative and advocate for the Athenaeum amongst the CMC community. As we welcome two new classes to campus, I am excited to be sharing the beauty of Ath dinners, speeches, and conversations.
Maria Gutierrez-Vera ’22: I was interested in becoming an Ath Fellow because of how central the Ath has been to my CMC experience. Since freshman year, the Ath has been a space to explore my intellectual interests and embrace my curiosity without worry about class performance or whether I knew enough about the subject at hand. As I approach the end of my time here at CMC, I am grateful to have had such a welcoming environment where I got to come of age and mature into my diverse academic interests.
Maya Kurkhill ’23: In my first-year at the Claremont Colleges, the Ath was an academic refuge for me. The Ath is a place where, even in the most difficult points of the semester, I can be rejuvenated and even more curious about the world. I was interested in becoming an Ath Fellow to continue to have that sense of wonder, while also being challenged through discourse and discussion.
How do you approach assembling a diverse roster of speakers?
Ghosh: I have tried to pay attention to creating a well-rounded, diverse roster of individuals who reflect not only a breadth of experiences, but who also are experts in a range of subjects. It is important to me that the Ath roster maintains its diversity to ensure that our community is able to learn from people of diverse backgrounds, not just ones which reflect their own experience and interests. The Ath is a place to consider all perspectives and learn from one another, and not only from speakers but also fellow audience members. Diversity is key to growth within our community, and the Ath is the perfect place to turn words into action.
Gutierrez-Vera: I think that each season’s speakers should speak to the events of their time, and bring in some new perspectives through which we can gain a new understanding. I think that this season’s speakers are responding to timely topics and debates happening both around campus and around the world.
What characteristics make an ideal speaker at the Ath?
Ghosh: Passion is the hallmark of an ideal Ath speaker. When a speaker is truly passionate about their work, research, or subject matter, their excitement for conversing with the crowd becomes contagious. I have seen audience members who are initially disinterested with an Ath speaker leave the talk with a newfound passion for ecology, criminal justice, and politics, just to name a few subject areas. We are very lucky to frequently have Ath speakers who are passionate about their work and are excited to be sharing their findings. Also, a touch of humor never hurts an Ath talk.
Kurkhill: Characteristics that make an ideal speaker include passion for engaging with our community, thinking, and dedication to the subject at hand. As someone who has participated in debate programming at CMC’s Debate Union for many years, I found much of my learning has been through rigorous and thoughtful discussion. At the Athenaeum, we are honored to have that opportunity with the speaker.
Who are some of your favorite speakers at the Ath and why?
Ghosh: I remember putting on my shoes and walking out of my dorm room at 5:45 p.m., excited to see attorney Rabia Chaudry speak about the first season of Serial, bias in the criminal justice system, and whether Adnan Syed was innocent. Every moment in Rabia’s Ath talk was memorable. From walking into the Athenaeum and hearing whispers about whether people believed Adnan to be guilty or innocent, to dinnertime conversations about how the police and court system had not done their due diligence, I was deeply engaged with my fellow Ath-goers. Our shared anticipation to hear Rabia speak built throughout the evening. At 7 p.m. Rabia began a strong, highly personal narrative about her relationship with Adnan, his family, and how their community was affected by his criminal charges. Although moments during dinner and talk were noteworthy, this overall experience was personally powerful for another reason: the Athenaeum had challenged my beliefs and pushed me to question what I believed to be true.
Speakers such as Rabia Chaudry, economist Raj Chetty, and writer Joyce Carol Oates (amongst so many others) challenged my understanding of the world and pushed me to think critically about the systems, stories, and institutions that dictate our lives. To me, this is the true beauty of the Athenaeum.
Gutierrez-Vera: Hands down, my favorite Ath speaker is novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, who shared his thoughts on immigration, love, identity, and the American dream. Nguyen’s talk instilled a lot of confidence in the validity of my own academic dreams and aspirations. Some of my other favorite speakers have been Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and lead creator of The 1619 Project, as well as Anthony Abraham Jack, author of “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students.” Both individuals spoke on intersections of race, privilege, and education, all topics I am passionate about.
Kurkhill: One of my favorite speakers at the Athenaeum was Graham Lee Brewer, a national reporter for NBC News and the former Indigenous Affairs editor for KOSU, presenting on “How American Journalism Created and Sustained National Myths.” Brewer spoke about the dynamics of journalism produced by indigenous and non-indigenous reporters. Although the focus of the talk was on journalism, the lessons I learned about the importance of indigenous agency and non-exploitative methods transcend to academia and legislation.
Anne Bergman, Gilien Silsby
Above, from left, Athenaeum Fellows Maya Ghosh ’22, Maya T. Kurkhill ’23, and Maria Gutierrez-Vera ’22 outside the Athenaeum.