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New 2014-15 Ath Fellows Think Outside the Box

[Photo by David Leathers '15]

Shannon Miller ’16 and Dante Toppo ’15, new Ath Fellows (2014-15) for the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, are going to have fun with their responsibilities this year. In fact, they’re a laugh a minute.

Sophomore Miller is from Berkeley, Calif. “Think rich people, liberals, protests, and Peet’s Coffee & Tea on every corner,” she says. Her major is Philosophy, Politics and Economics and she has big plans after graduation.

“I want to move into an apartment with my cats and dismantle the patriarch, one Facebook link at a time,” she says. “I’d also like to write a book, just like Hannah from HBO’s “Girls,” and continue to strive for excellence in the quality and quantity of my Gchat statuses.”

Toppo is majoring in international relations and plans to attend graduate school, “if any will have me,” he says.

He hails from Ashland, Ore., a small town about 10 minutes from the California border, which he reminds us is famed for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival performing everything from The Music Man to Macbeth.

“Both my parents work there; my dad as an actor and my mom as a costumer,” he says. “So I had really cool Halloween costumes. As a teen you tend to think that wherever you grew up is the most boring place in the country, but now that I have moved away, I always love going back to Ashland.”

We caught up with Miller and Toppo for a Q&A session, with the idea that if we didn’t “Ath,” they wouldn’t tell.

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CMC: Who would you like to book as your dream speaker at the Ath?
Shannon: Janet Mock, the author of Redefining Realness. She has the best tweets about Beyoncé, Destiny’s Child, and “Scandal.” She’s also an absolute inspiration with an important story to tell. Everyone should read her book.
Dante: Winston Churchill. I imagine he would have some interesting things to say about the Crimea right now.

CMC: Realistically speaking, who do you think you might have a shot at getting?
Shannon: Janet Mock is on a book tour right now, so I think we actually have a pretty good chance of booking her.
Dante: The Ath’s resources are vast, so I wouldn’t rule out Winston Churchill just yet! But in terms of someone more contemporary, I would hope to get the speaker I wrote about in my application, slam poet Anis Mojgani. I think some of the best transformations the campus has made have been towards providing spaces for creative expression, and the Ath has definitely followed suit.

CMC: What does the Ath mean to you personally?
Shannon: I grew up surrounded by a very homogenous point of view, and it took self-education and interacting with family from different backgrounds to recognize and critically reflect on that. As a result, I think the intellectual diversity the Ath provides is incredibly important for keeping us on our toes, challenging our perspectives, and exposing us to new ways of thinking. I’ve learned a lot from both the speakers I agree with most, and those I’ve agreed with least. And those experiences have had a large impact on my personal and intellectual development. I also love food, so the Ath has obviously meant a lot to me, personally, as a source of food and fancy cheese.
Dante: To me the Ath is the best example of the intellectual atmosphere at CMC. Other similar institutions gradually become social clubs for the privileged, or venues for “infotainment” TEDTalks. However, our Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum was envisaged as, and continues to be, a student-focused environment for substantive intellectual engagement and discussion. I think it’s a testament to the caliber of the CMC student that we regularly pack the house with students from across the disciplines, and still preserve opportunities for one-on-one conversations with the speaker and with attendant faculty and staff.

CMC: What led you to enroll at CMC?
Shannon: I came to CMC so I could hang out with Republicans. We don’t have those where I come from.
Dante: I actually knew nothing about CMC when I stumbled upon it in one of those “500 best colleges” tomes. I saw it had a good political science department and decided to look a little closer. Ultimately I applied to CMC for two reasons: the PPE major and the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum. Like many freshmen, my academic interest in PPE waned (especially when I found out I had to apply to the major), but my personal interest in the Ath only increased with my time at CMC.

CMC: Why did you want to be an Ath Fellow?
Shannon: As soon as I knew there was such a thing as an Ath Fellow, I knew I wanted to be one at some point. I decided to stay on campus for junior year so that I could apply for the fellowship, but even when I was considering going abroad or off-campus, I kept thinking, “What if someone awesome comes to the Ath and I miss it?” But seriously, I think the fellowship is a lot less about what you get from it, and more about what it allows you to give people. I think Dante and I will be able to create an intellectual, entertaining, and educational atmosphere at the Ath next year, and that’s really what made me want to do it.
Dante: I’ve wanted to be Ath Fellow since freshman year. It’s an excellent excuse to do something I love: go to the Ath. I’m excited to have the opportunity to help build the speaker series and work with our new director on keeping the Ath apace with the growth and diversification of CMC. Also the food.

CMC: What do you spend far too much time doing?
Shannon: Deciding what to order at the Motley.
Dante: Homework. But that’s a boring answer that everyone gives. So, rather, I spend far too much time talking about all the homework I do. Perhaps that’s an inherent cost of second semester at CMC.

CMC: Who (past or present) would you most like to model yourself after?
Shannon: I try to model myself after Ben Tillotson ’15: Ath Fellow emeritus, superstar nap-taker, ethical playwright, AND from time to time he moonlights as ASCMC President (for the tips). Whenever I can’t quite reach Ben’s level, though, I settle for modeling myself after Ben’s presidential predecessor, Gavin Landgraf ’14—you just can’t beat that jaw line.
Dante: Andy Willis: the most interesting man in the world.

CMC: What’s your favorite guilty pleasure?
Shannon: Ferris Bueller monologues in the shower.
Dante: Frank Underwood monologues in the shower. No better way to start the day.

CMC: What is your favorite catchphrase?
Shannon: “History will absolve me.” ––Fidel Castro
These are words to live by, because they epitomize the importance of staying true to your firmest convictions in the face of naysayers. I like to imagine this is how Hilary Duff explained her fourth studio album Dignity to the world.
Dante: “Be interested, not interesting.” My dad told me this once, I’m not sure where it is from. I like it because it reminds me that everyone thinks they are particularly exciting, and occasionally forget that other people are too.

CMC: What’s the worst piece of advice you ever received?
Shannon: The worst advice I have ever received can be captured by a general trend in opinions that have been conferred to me regarding an issue I care deeply about: pet ownership. I have a long, storied history of pet ownership, during which there have been highs and lows. From BunBun the rabbit, to some turtles my mother brought home, to the five mini hamsters, all of whose names I have forgotten except for Vanessa, to my first (and now old, grouchy, but loving) cat Charlie, to my now middle-aged kittens Grey Kitty and Orange Kitty, to my first puppy friend Big Nate, and now to his younger brother and companion Vinny, I know my pets.

Now, I hear a lot of people say things like, “I could never marry someone who owned a cat—I’m a dog person.” But to those folks, I have to say: You are missing out on what Rick from Casablanca would call “the beginning of a beautiful friendship” with a feline. I patently reject the false dichotomy of “cat person” versus “dog person,” though I once thought myself to be of the “cat person” variety, prior to Big Nate joining our family. Now that I have gotten to know Big Nate, though, I must say that my worldview has not switched post-dog ownership, it has simply expanded! The unique and caring relationships that we have with our pets differ from animal to animal, and you simply can’t attempt to approach a relationship with a cat the way you might approach one with a dog, or vice versa. As an experienced cat companion, I did struggle with this when getting to know Big Nate, but my relationships with him and Vinny have really blossomed over the past couple years.
Dante: “Branch out and try new things, you might like some of them.” I liked all of them. Now I have to pick.