Leaving the Nest: Seven Faculty Members and Staffers Retiring in 2020

As three iconic faculty members and four trailblazing staffers leave the nest this year, their combined 172 years of service deserve a moment in the spotlight. They have taught and nurtured our students, helped build our community and culture, and their legacies will carry on.

Tina Nott, retiring Math teacher, was a founding member of the Middle School faculty, a co-founder of Middle School Focus Days, and the second woman to teach Math at Athenian. Joining Eleanor Dase, Munzer Afifi and Lester Henderson in a combined Middle School/Upper School Math department, she joined Athenian in 1982 and helped realize a vision to have more women teach STEM. 

Retiring French teacher Elisabeth Bertschi, who joined Athenian in 1986, brought with her “whole child” approaches to learning. Her rubrics for refreshing her curriculum were decades ahead of their time. Though she came to Athenian straight out of graduate school, she had a natural ability to connect with students. 

Retiring staffer Debbie Schafgans joined Athenian in 1987, initially in the Development (now Advancement) department. She was also a pioneer: the first staffer to use a personal computer for core elements of her role and one of the first to manage the digital integration of her department. 

As with Debbie Schafgans, retiring staffer Debra Ataman’s role evolved. She joined Athenian in 1997, working in Reception before becoming the Assistant to the Director of Special Programs in 2001. In the years following, Debra became heavily involved in community outreach and ultimately went on to be a key member of our Summer Programs, contributing to its significant growth over the years.

When asked about why Athenian staff and faculty are so well-equipped to play a variety of roles, former Head of School Eleanor Dase pointed to the many opportunities for faculty and staff to show leadership, such as chaperoning trips, organizing fundraisers, providing leadership in Round Square, Interim/March Term, and much more. If self-determination and grassroots organizing are part of Athenian’s DNA, it’s clear why retiring employees Lydia Guzman, Elise Jan and Barbara Carlino were so effective.

Lydia Guzman began her career at Athenian in 2000, serving for 20 years as the Attendance Officer. She also co-advised the Latino Club, raised more than $17,000 for the Monument Crisis Center over the years after co-founding the Tuesday Nacho Sale, organized the annual Athenian Pink Day to benefit breast cancer and served a run as Dean of Staff. Along with Debbie, she was an early regular attendee of the National Association of Independent Schools’ People of Color Conference (POCC) and an early champion of equity and inclusion at Athenian.

Barbara Carlino, who joined in 2007 as Upper School Counselor, founded longstanding programs as well. She co-created ASAP (the Athenian Sexual Assault Prevention Program), started the school’s peer counseling program, and shaped curriculum and culture by carrying out Athenian’s health education program for many years.

Mandarin teacher Elise Jan, who came to Athenian in 2009, is yet another lauded language teacher. She developed an innovative method of instruction that helped students achieve a level of fluency that wasn’t obtainable through classic approaches. Along the lines of holistic participation, she also chaperoned several trips abroad. 

Beyond what these outgoing women contributed as trailblazers from a curriculum and culture perspective, they contributed greatly to our enjoyment of the school. They gave hugs. They played pranks (we’re looking at you, Tina). They performed in countless Staff and Faculty Talent Shows. They were treasured friends. We will miss them all. 

Four Athenian Alumni Donate 10,000 Masks to Our Local Community

Pictured from left to right: Jim Lin ’07, father Ting-Fung Lin, Shannon Lin ’09

In an act of tremendous global philanthropy, four Athenian alumni joined forces to donate and coordinate the delivery of 10,000 surgical masks to our local community. The alumni, former boarding students from Taiwan, gave Athenian discretion around their distribution. Jim Lin ‘07 and Shannon Lin ‘09 were the original organizers. When friends Jamie Chang ‘08 and Wesley Yang ‘12 heard about the brothers’ idea, they quickly joined the effort.

“I checked in with Jim and Shannon when the pandemic hit,” said Michelle Park, Athenian’s International Student Coordinator, ESL teacher and longtime faculty member with the School. “I wanted to say hello and see if their family was well. They asked if we at Athenian needed anything in regards to supplies, as the U.S. was just entering the COVID-19 crisis. They wanted to make a donation and wanted Athenian to decide who should receive the masks.”

Pictured: Michelle Park and Eric Niles with Maeshah Shaw and Jelani Moses of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers

After a long and complicated shipping process, Athenian received its first delivery last week and has now received the remainder of the masks. Donations have already been made to the SEIU United Healthcare Worker’s Union, John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek, the Springhill Medical Group, and The Gubbio Project, a non-profit serving the homeless community in San Francisco.

On Video: Jelani Moses of Kaiser Permanente

SEIU United Healthcare Workers West members Jelani Moses of Kaiser Permanente and Maeshah Shaw of San Ramon Regional Medical Center visited campus today to receive their donation of 4,200 surgical masks. In the video below, Jelani expresses his thanks.

Apart from sending a huge thanks to Jim, Shannon, Jamie and Wesley for their extraordinary kindness, we also appreciate those who worked to coordinate efforts on the Athenian side: Michelle Park and Vivian Liao.

Athenian Alumni Teach in Virtual Classrooms as Part of Distance Learning

Athenian faculty found silver linings as they adjusted to distance learning, tapping our global network of alumni to lend live classroom expertise. Andrew Gerst ‘09, Lizzie Miskovetz ‘10, and Julian Binder ‘11 joined David Otten’s Applied Science and Engineering course last Wednesday as guest lecturers. Karen Hinh ‘19 and Baxter Eldridge ‘13 joined on Thursday and Friday, respectively, all by Zoom videoconference.

“It was so great to see how our fledgling engineers from a decade ago are making huge design waves at Tesla, Microsoft, and Virgin Galactic,” David said, speaking of his Wednesday guests. “They had wonderful advice for our current batch of students…most importantly, to stop caring so much about your GPA, and instead focus on doing what you love and making the world a better place.”

David wasn’t the only teacher to integrate community expertise into student curriculum last week: former board chair and alumni parent, Dave Welsh, joined Head of School, Eric Niles Constitutional Law class to present the stock market through the lens of current events. Scaling up to accommodate wider community participation is part of a longer-term plan:

“I look at this opportunity to have alumni visiting as an unexpected gift of COVID-19 and distance learning,” said Head of Upper School, Amy Wintermeyer. “We were supposed to have a career day on March 11th and it was disappointing for both students and alumni to miss out. I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to find ways to still connect alumni with many of our students and I’m hoping we can continue to do this in the weeks following spring break!”

If you are an alumnus or another member of our community with expertise you think might be great for our classroom, send us an email and let us know! 

Beat Boxing with Eric Strand ’16

by Kim Palacios, Associate Director of Advancement, Alumni Giving & Engagement

Athenian was delighted to welcome alumnus Eric Strand ‘16 as a visiting instructor teaching beat-boxing skills to the hOWLers. Strand sings with On The Rocks, the nationally-known all-male a cappella group at the University of Oregon and traces some of his love for performing back to his Athenian roots. This September marked the fourth time that Eric visited campus to lend his expertise to student programs. He has also organized performances of On the Rocks on the Athenian campus. 

Eric’s visit is the latest in a series of alumni/hOWLers partnerships organized by Choir Director Emily Shinkle, whose track record of building two-way relationships between Athenian alumni and current students, and bringing alumni back to perform has been stellar. “I’m always happy to see former hOWLers continue on with singing in college and I love it when they want to come back to share what they’ve learned and inspire our current singers,” she remarked. 

Beyond bringing Eric back to serve students, Emily and the hOWLers have traveled to the Oakland elementary school where Melissa Barry Hansen ’85 is a 5th-grade teacher, teaching them how to sing in rounds, and two-part harmonies. An Alumni Cabaret held in January 2018 brought young alumni back for a vocally-focused variety show. Emily is currently in discussions with a cross-functional team to co-organize a new performance event that would feature a mix of students and alumni. Stay tuned for possible news!

Athletes with Character: Remembering Scott Leister ’05

Athenian student-athletes are known for their character, both on the field and off. We value leadership, dedication, service, playfulness, and compassion. Scott Leister ’05 was an outstanding student-athlete who embodied the pillars that are the foundation of an Athenian student. Scott’s life was tragically cut short at age 21 when he was killed by a drunk driver. August 2018 marks the tenth anniversary of Scott’s passing.

Scott before a high school dance

Scott embodied the pillars that are the foundation of an Athenian student. Scott played varsity soccer all four years at Athenian and was a valued member of the team, for his athletic ability, game strategy, and team spirit. He was also an active participant in international experiences, committed to community service, and a frequent outdoor adventurer. Scott went on to become a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Rochester, was a Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician, and was intending to pursue a medical degree to further his international humanitarian efforts. In 2013, California Highway Patrol published a service video about Scott.

Scott’s memory is kept alive at Athenian. For the last ten years, we have recognized a student-athlete with the Scott Leister Spirit of Athenian Award. The Scott Leister Award is inscribed with the following text: “We will teach our sons about Scott. We will cultivate in them the qualities he showed the world: Responsibility, Humility, Service, Play, Love. They will become men who live Scott’s message. They will teach their children about Scott and the values and qualities he embodied. Over and over again Scott will live in new lives. Like thousands of raindrops falling from the sky, his compassion and his play will keep dancing in this world and beyond.”

The winners of the Scott Leister Award to date are Ben Wang ’09, Jeff Sohn ’10, Jared Madden ’11, Ian Truebridge ’12, Tyler Huntington ’13, Anthony Aguilar ’14, Brendan Suh ’15, Andrew Kocins 16, Bradley Altomare ’17, and Victoria Akinsanya ’18.

To provide Athenian students with the opportunities Scott had as a young person, Scott’s family started The Scott Leister ’05 Endowment for International Community Service. Scott’s mom Carol Leister has become a Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Victim Advocate and she and her family have spoken to thousands of people including law enforcement officers and DUI offenders. And every year, Scott’s family sometimes accompanied by Athenians march with Walk Like MADD.

Athenian teaches students about the hazards of drinking and the fatal consequences of drinking while driving in its health classes. MADD publishes the following statistics on its website:

  • Drunk driving is still the #1 cause of death on our roadways.
  • There are 300,000 drunk driving incidents a day
  • There are 10,497 deaths a year. That’s 29 deaths every day and one death every 50 minutes. Each and every one of them is 100% preventable.

Life in Flight: What’s Possible After Athenian

Updated November 28, 2017

The core values of Athenian’s mission provide the foundation for 21st-century success: critical and analytical thinking, collaboration, teamwork, and creativity.  For proof of this, look no further than Keenan Wyrobek ’99.  During his Athenian experience, he built rockets, competed on the swim team, and embraced failure in projects and experiments as a learning opportunity. The skills Keenan built at Athenian served him well at Johns Hopkins and Stanford, and in developing the reading app Bam Boomerang and the Personal Robotics Program at Willow Garage.

In founding Zipline, Keenan combined his robotics expertise and a strong desire to help others. Recently featured on National Geographic’s Chasing Genius series and CNN, Zipline gets medical supplies to communities that are difficult to access. Keenan’s drone-operated delivery system sends urgent medical supplies to patients who can’t be reached otherwise. Health workers can order critical items like blood by text message from Zipline; within minutes, a drone takes off and medical products are delivered quickly and safely by parachute. Zipline, one of Keenan’s service-oriented tech startups, has raised nearly $50 million in funding for its innovative, humanitarian, life-saving projects and has delivered thousands of units of blood saving countless lives. Keenan tells us, “My Athenian education prepared me for what I do at Zipline. In my work at Zipline, I draw on the hands on the problem-solving experience, technical knowledge, and leadership skills I gained at Athenian every day.”

Keenan delivered a TEDMed2017 talk at the beginning of November sharing about his work providing blood and medical supplies to hard to reach populations and Zipline was a winner of the 2017 INDEX: Designs to Improve Life Award, which came with a €500,000 grant. One of the jury members, Ravi Naidoo, said Zipline “is a great systemic interplay of designers, governments and society bringing the best first-world technology to the poorest.” With a successful operation in place in Rwanda, Zipline will be establishing four distribution centers in Tanzania in 2018 and plans to continue expanding to countries across the world. Plans are in the works to begin delivering blood to remote areas of Maryland, Nevada, and Washington as well, serving as a pilot project for a global rollout redefining the delivery of emergency supplies.

Watch ZIPLINE – 2017 BODY WINNER from INDEX: Design to Improve Life® on Vimeo.

Alumni Wisdom: Life After Athenian

Today is Alumni Day at Athenian. Many of our young alums are still home on college winter break and are able to share with our students about their life after Athenian. Here is a collection of quotes from today’s Symposia on how Athenian prepares students for college.

“In terms of writing, Athenian does a great job…take your humanities classes seriously, take your history classes seriously, because the writing skills that you learn here will put you way ahead when you start college.”

“Athenian prepared me really well, or over-prepared me. I’ve been gliding through college.”

“Athenian prepares you to advocate for yourself and be comfortable with teachers, so it’s so much easier to get to know your teachers.”

“I felt well-prepared, especially in paper writing….You all are way more prepared than you think you are with writing exercises.”

“Athenian prepared me really well socially for college. I learned here how to be outgoing, and I think that’s really important when you’re trying to meet friends at college. If you’re outgoing, people will latch onto you really quickly. Academically, I talked to my roommate this year, and he said in high school, he was never really challenged. So he didn’t understand the idea of studying a really long time for a test, but that was just natural for me because here you’re challenged more than other places and that really helps.”

“The science department gives you a really solid base, a really solid foundation. The one thing that I wish I had practiced more when I was in high school was learning from a textbook.”

“Athenian also really taught me that is what is most important is what you actually learn and the person you are becoming. I think that we are prepared really well for a lot of the general education. We learn how to learn. We also learn how to work. If you can apply that same work ethic that you learn here, inevitably, as you get deeper into what you’re doing, there’s nothing that can prepare you for college, because hopefully, it’ll be a time when you’re pushing yourself, really trying to grow. So there’s no way to truly be prepared other than learning how to get through hard things. And Athenian is a hard thing, so that’s good.”

“I was actually a little worried coming out of Athenian that I didn’t do enough….and then I got into college classes, and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m amazed at how much Athenian has taught me.’ All the writing rubrics were identical. I was writing 5-7 papers a week and I thought they were a breeze. I was in some of my classes and some of the students didn’t know how to make graphs in Excel, and I thanked Bruce and Will silently for teaching me how to do that….If you’ve taken advantage of what Athenian has to offer, I’ve found that I’m really ahead in college and having an easy time because I was prepared so well.”

“You’re really prepared. I remember something I heard when I was sitting on that side of the conversation. And that is, college is 30% academics and 70% social. I’d like to echo that, because, at the end of the day, I have class for 12 hours a week. Compared to high school, it’s nothing. Honestly, you have to put in a lot of work [to the social scene].”

“I came to Athenian junior year. I learned how to be nice in general, so that even if everyone has their own groups, you can still be friends….this goes a long way. Many engineering students at my school have jobs in the best industries in the United States. The ones that I talk to, if I ask them for a job, I might get one, so that is a helpful thing. It helps me to be social and be patient and that’s something that I got from here.”

“I was someone who didn’t do the best at Athenian, but at the same time, I weirdly found myself really well prepared when I went to college….It can be a little rigorous. It’s easy to complain….I really miss Athenian in the sense that I feel like I didn’t appreciate it enough when I was here….Definitely appreciate what you have here. You have teachers who will grab you outside of class and smack you into reality. You’re not going to get that in college. You’re not going to have teachers who actually care for you. [Athenian teachers] care for you, they really do. All the things you have done for me, it really means a lot. That C that you would give me, it really helped me grow into the person that I am today. And you’re not going to get that in college as much if you go to a big school. Teachers won’t necessarily do that for you. They’ll give you the grade but they won’t tell you why unless you go to them….Go to your teachers, go to your professors later in life.”

“Socially, you’re going to have to put yourselves out there more than you did here. Sign up for things and put your phones away.”

Athenians Connected Around the World

By Chris Beeson, Director of Admission and Financial Aid

Many boarding schools travel each year internationally to connect with current parents and alumni as well as encourage prospective students to apply. I have done so for Athenian for many years, building our relationship with these important members of the Athenian community who cannot get to campus as easily as those who live nearby.

Athenian’s travel has been built around annual fairs organized in Asian cities by TABS (The Association of Boarding Schools) for U.S. and Canadian schools. This year’s travels took me to eight cities (Bangkok, Beijing, Hong Kong, Saigon, Seoul, Shanghia, Taipei, and Tokyo) in seven countries in just 19 days! Though the fast pace of the trip is challenging, the warm connections made with Athenian families and alumni are heartwarming. In each meeting, I can build a stronger relationship for Athenian with these community members abroad.

14725707_10206928662911209_6895392832755584848_nI am truly touched by how much our alumni and parents value an Athenian education and experience. It is amazing how strong the bond to Athenian can be for alumni, some who graduated many years ago and some more recently. Alumni and current parents often join me to represent Athenian at the boarding school fairs as a testament to their commitment to the School. I am so grateful to the many volunteers who are by my side that not only know the School but can help bridge any language barriers that may arise.

In meetings with alumni and parents, I can share current information about what’s happening on campus as well as answer questions from parents and alumni.  I share with each boarding parent an update about their child. Both parents and alumni often value the chance to ask questions about Athenian now and our plans for the future.  With current parents, I can often fill in where information is missing and reply to any queries they have.  

Facebook has proven to be an amazing tool in locating and communicating.  After 23 years as the Director of Admission, there are many alumni I know but who may not have kept Athenian updated with their most current contact information.  I have been able to find some alumni on Facebook and then build out through their list of friends to locate others.  These connections are often met with enthusiasm and lead to wonderful gatherings on these trips.  

Here are some highlights of the fall 2016 trip:

  • Alumni, a current parent, and alumni parents gathered in Tokyo for dinner. Noburo Nishio helped represent Athenian at the fair in Tokyo.
  • Current parents met with me in Beijing, Shanghai, and Taiwan.
  • Alumni in Hong Kong gathered with me for dinner.
  • Parents and alumni in Ho Chi Minh City joined me for a meeting and lovely gathering.
  • In Bangkok, 12 alumni and alumni parents enjoyed a great meal.  I met with another recent alum over lunch. Krittaya Pichitnapakul once again helped represent Athenian at the boarding school fair.

Thank you to everyone who joined me for dinner, helped out at a fair, or just came to say hello. I look forward to next year’s trip already! Here’s to the international community that is Athenian!

The Original AWE: Borrowed Boots, a Lost Sleeping Bag, and Lifelong Friends

In honor of Athenian’s 50th Anniversary, alumni Michael Connelly ’71 and Judy Goldberg ’71 wrote about their 1969 experience on what we now know as the Athenian Wilderness Experience.  

By Michael Connelly and Judy Goldberg

Michael (pictured above on right, eating):  What we now refer to as the Athenian Wilderness Experience, or AWE, was just plain Outward Bound when it first became part of the Athenian experience the year I came to the school as a junior in 1969.  That first year, the program was operated by staff from Northwest Outward Bound, in Oregon, in portions of the Sierras where many of them had never been before, creating unexpected challenges and a real learning experience for everyone involved.  Participation was mandatory, which apparently created an issue for some rising sophomores but was just part of the program for people like me who were new to the school. My arrival from Mexico City, where my family lived at the time, was memorable in a number ways.  The flight my mother had booked for me arrived in San Francisco, and I was shuttled by helicopter across the Bay to the pick-up point at Oakland Airport.  I’ve never been sure why, but the helicopter was of the large, green military variety and I soon realized that for all the other young men who were aboard, the final destination was not an idyllic co-educational boarding school nestled at the foot of Mount Diablo but Vietnam.

michael connolly 4_Page_3

Judy pictured in braids.

Once the bus had deposited all of us at the school and we gathered under the Oak tree to check our equipment before setting out early the next morning for Mono Lake, I discovered I was in unexpected trouble because I had no hiking boots.  I was a scholarship student and I had read in the materials we had been sent by Outward Bound that boots would be provided.  Of course, that referred to participants in the Northwest Outward Bound program, not Athenian students, and I had clearly misunderstood.  I told Leslie, my patrol leader, of my predicament, and she came to the rescue by lending me her spare boots.  That meant that I was not only well shod but the boots had already been broken in and I avoided the suffering that many of my cohorts experienced as a result of having brand-new boots.

Judy:  My anticipation of the Outward Bound experience was distinctively different from Michael’s.  I, too, was an entering junior at Athenian, thanks to the good fortune of parents who realized I hungered for a different kind of high school experience. I was a Bay Area kid, steeped in 60’s pedagogy (though a little young for true hippie identity) and an avid outdoor adventurer. I recall starting the “OB” adventure with some “attitude.” I loved back-packing and had gone on summer camp expeditions in the Trinity Alps of northern California for several years.  I looked dismissively at my fellow students as they struggled over decisions about packing and what to leave behind: make-up, extra clothes, beloved mementos, etc. This particular “letting go” was far from my non-materialistic sense of necessities. A backpack and an open trail were my métier.

So off we all went the next morning, gathering that evening for supper together by the lake shore before leaving on our separate patrols early the next morning.  Each patrol included a faculty member as well as the patrol leader so there were two adults ostensibly in charge of a crowd of unruly teenagers.  The Outward Bound folks had not, up until that time, had a coeducational program or one in which many of the participants (all those rising sophomores) already knew each other, so that was probably a good thing.

A number of patrols were scheduled to meet up again in Tuolumne Meadows.  We had significant difficulty getting there–including the loss of my poorly attached sleeping bag while crossing a glacier and a case of snow blindness resulting from our crossing it in bright sunshine–and arrived a day later than planned.  I will never forget our arrival, when Leslie settled us in the shade beside a cool mountain stream for lunch (have peanut butter and crackers ever tasted so good?) while she went off to find the others.  When she returned after scouring the Meadows for some time, she reported that we were the only ones there so far.  It turned out that all the other patrols experienced greater challenges and worse setbacks than we had, which in retrospect seems to have been one of the distinct benefits as well as difficulties of planning a program for the first time in terra incognita.

As our respective patrols set-out with backpacks laden with a shared food supply for 5 days, I recall taking a lion’s share, proclaiming “it’s not so heavy once you hoist the pack onto your hips.” I demonstrated by dragging the heavy pack onto a bent leg and swinging it over my shoulder. I imagine myself hitting the trail with a particular “see, no big deal!” flare. Our first hike was a series of steep switch-backs.  Not fun, but I knew a slow pace was better than the stop and start, huff and puff I saw from my whinier trail mates. I’m sure the patrol leader must have reminded us that we were only as fast as our slowest member. “Like that was going to build team spirit!  What wusses!” was probably ruminating in my inflated head. That evening, when we were setting up camp, I got my comeuppance.  Warned about bears, I decided to climb a tree to hang my (heavier than most!) food sack.  In one very unheroic move, I came crashing down from the tree limb and landed on my right knee.  It was bad. It swelled to twice its size and I couldn’t put weight on it. For the rest of the trip, I hobbled with a stick, trying to keep up with the rest of the group.

So how did I survive without a sleeping bag?  Leslie, who had done her own urban Outward Bound (including a solo) in the streets of Detroit saw this as a challenge for the entire group to solve.  So until the snow blind girl went home at the first resupply (in the early days, there were two resupplies until it was realized that one was enough) and left her sleeping bag behind, I slept wrapped in ground cloths between two other people in their sleeping bags. It worked, although my teeth would be chattering by dawn, and after that, I was certainly more careful when it came to packing my backpack.

One other story–while trudging up a mountain during an early season snow storm, I remember exhaustedly asking Leslie when we would finally reach the summit.  “Look up,” she said, “instead of looking at your (her) boots.”  I did, and there was the peak right before my eyes.

How did I manage with a badly sprained knee?  Well, I got encouragement and special attention from the handsome patrol leader which was a happy surprise.  And when asked if I wanted to go home at the same troublesome resupply Michael mentioned, I said “no way!” Had I left at that juncture I never would have been in the same expedition group at the end with Michael. It was in those high Sierra landscapes where we started what has now become a 44-year friendship; initially cemented by Michael plucking a fresh, white aster each morning for me to stick into my long thick plait.

Lessons learned?  The trail offers many transferrable analogies for day-to-day life.  “Keep on trucking.” “When you get to a fork in the road, stay high.” Clearly, this would be a popular choice for a 60’s gal! Another spin from Michael’s “look up” and appreciate where you are when you’re in the heat of an uphill climb is to “narrow your field of vision.” Mountains are never as big if you stay the course and go from step to step. Then, when you do reach that summit or pass, you realize it wasn’t all that hard after all.

Once it was over and we were all back at Athenian, I often talked to the friends from my patrol about our experience (and am still in touch with many people I met on Outward Bound to this day).  As I recall, most of us felt that it was an amazing, worthwhile and life-changing experience.  Except for one fellow, who was an excellent student and went on to Harvard, who said if he ever had to go hiking with a fifty-pound backpack again it would be too soon.

I’ve always wondered if he ever changed his opinion or still feels that way.

 

Athenian Alum Creates Open Dialogue Platform at Westpoint

Originally published in The Pillar, Athenian’s student newspaper

by Priya Canzius ’16

This past fall, Athenian alum Cadet David Weinmann ’14 helped to develop a social media platform called Let’s Talk Jihad with 15 other classmates at The United States Military Academy at West Point.

“The idea was essentially to provide an unbiased forum where people could come and discuss Jihad, Islam, current events, the Islamic state, [and more],” Weinman said. “We moderated discussions and invited vetted experts to join the forum to provide their opinion.”

Athenian teacher Kal Balaven was one of the experts contacted.

“I contacted [Balaven] because I knew that he was aware of the history behind some of the origins of these radical groups; and because he is an educator and knows how to reach youth,” Weinmann said.

According to NPR, “a big part of the U.S. fight against ISIS is happening online, [and] the U.S. government is looking for ideas from all corners to try to figure out how to get better at countering the ISIS propaganda that is so central to the group’s recruiting strategy.”

Rather than using social media as a recruitment tool, Let’s Talk Jihad uses its platform to reach out to youth around the world.

“Our group also reached out to Imams and community leaders in the US as well as the UK and we are still trying to get leaders and other nations on-board,” Weinmann said. “We also worked with instructors in the Arabic and Middle Eastern history departments as well as Muslim cadets here at the academy. We sought out people we were confident would be able to provide advice to troubled youth.”

Because ISIS uses its extensive social media network to appeal to the younger generation, Let’s Talk Jihad’s goal is to redirect youth to less radical solutions.

“Most people do not know the presence that the Islamic State has online,” Weinmann said. “The internet is powerful. It is far more powerful than most of us think and the Islamic State uses it better than any other terror group… There is no single profile that people who join ISIS fit; anyone is susceptible to their propaganda.”

To combat this influence, the U.S. Department of State created the Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism (P2P) initiative. The goal of P2P, according to its website, is for “university students from around the world [to] develop and execute campaigns and social media strategies against extremism.”

Photo taken by EdVetnture Partners

Photo taken by EdVetnture Partners

Weinmann and his fellow cadets won second prize in this competition for their Let’s Talk Jihad page.

“We knew about the [P2P] initiative being put on by the State Department (DOS) when we started,” Weinmann said. “We looked at previous campaigns and wanted to build something that was different, something that would specifically target the audience we were reaching out for, which we called fence-sitters.”

Fence-sitters, according to Weinmann, are people who are “having thoughts about joining the radical group [ISIS].”

“These fence-sitters are what ultimately fuels ISIS’ ranks and are part of what makes them such a force,” Weinmann said. “We wanted to talk to these individuals before they became radical and traveled to join ISIS.”

On the page itself, the cadets chose to remain anonymous.

“We tried not to make assertions in our social media posts,” Weinmann said. “We just asked questions, and as a result we hid our biases. We used articles, stories and pictures from a number of sources, and some of our posts were in Arabic in order to keep things ambiguous.”

Furthermore, according to Weinmann, in order to “gain legitimacy among fence-sitters… [Weinman and his classmates] were careful to try and distance the campaign from the military academy and DOS.”

“By leaving our site anonymous we were able to talk with people without having them immediately discredit anything that we said,” Weinmann said. “Teenagers in Cairo won’t take advice from the US Army! [The goal is to help] people come to an understanding that what ISIS is talking about is really a bastardized version of Islam in order to further their political goals.”

However, the cadets’ identities were publicized in many online news outlets in early February.

“We had asked the DOS keep our identities a secret, but that didn’t work out once the media got involved; we did not intend to have the project go public,” Weinmann said.

According to Weinmann, “it’s still too early to tell the effect that [the media attention] will have on the campaign. [Moreover, the cadets] still update the page, but less frequently.”

Let’s Talk Jihad has made an impact on social media.

“We knew that we were making an impact when ISIS members started telling members of their group not to come to our page or listen to what we were saying,” Weinmann said. “They also- may or may not – have tried to shut down our Twitter. We aren’t entirely sure since it was anonymous, but we believe it was them.

Although Weinmann and his fellow cadets currently maintain the Let’s Talk Jihad page, according to Weinmann, they “are looking to turn the campaign over to a group that would be able to run it full-time and provide even better support than we can.”

“With our limited time and resources, we don’t see ourselves maintaining it forever,” Weinmann said.

Balaven believes that the use of social media is important to redirect fence-sitters and supports the cadets’ mission.

“It was a pretty phenomenal thing that [David and his classmates] did,” Balaven said. “He tried to find a non-violent way of trying to use social media to try to get those that would sympathize or empathize with ISIS into a place where they can dialogue and get their frustration out outside of those venues.”