Senior Spotlight: Stephen

Author: Megan Schaffner, junior

The Student Spotlight Series is an opportunity for Rose Hill Honors students to interview their peers in the Program and share the conversations with the broader community.

For this article, Megan Schaffner, a current junior in the Program, interviewed graduating senior, Stephen Lebak. Stephen is majoring in Mathematics and minoring in Computer Science.  He has been a dedicated member of the Fordham Pep Band since his freshman year and will begin an exciting job with Boeing after graduation this May. Within the Honors community, Stephen has become well-known and loved for his incredible baking.

Megan: Was there something that drew you to your major and minor?

Stephen: I did come in as a math major, but just as a math major. I had little to no interest in computer science [originally.]  When Fordham made my first semester schedule, they put me in an introductory Computer Science course… I had a really good professor and she got me interested in the material. I felt like I understood it and enjoyed it, so I kept taking classes and tacked on the minor.  I nearly switched to the major, but a lot of what makes computers run is based on linear algebra and math in the first place, so it seemed more logical for me to follow the math major.

Megan: I hear you will be working with Boeing after graduation.  I am curious to hear more about that.

Stephen: [My interest in them] is something that’s come up over the past couple of years.  The team I’ll be working on specifically programs flight simulations, which are then used to train air-force pilots.  A lot of jobs in the contracting/defense industry are perhaps not as ethical as one might hope. So, especially after coming out of a Jesuit school [where there is an emphasis placed on ethics and justice], I was lucky to find [a job aligned with those values].

Megan: And where will you be?

Stephen:  The job is in St. Louis.

Megan: Are you from around here?  

Stephen: Yes, I’m originally from Queens; I went to high school in New York and lived with my grandparents then.  Before that, I was in Boston, where my parents still are.

Megan: So is the move to St. Louis a daunting task for you or is it not too big of a deal?

Stephen: It depends on the day.  I will certainly say that sometimes it’s really exciting—I get to go to a new city, start from scratch.  On other days, I’ll ask [myself], “What am I getting myself into?” It basically is a full overhaul. I do know one person there, but that’s really it, so it will be completely new.  It’s exciting though; it should be fun.

Megan:  I’ve also been told that you’re quite the popular baker, so I was wondering if you’d want to talk a bit about that?

Stephen: [laughs]  Who told you that? Okay, so this goes back to my late high school days.  Every now and then I would bake cookies, except I lived with my grandparents and my grandfather immediately would go on a diet and my grandmother wouldn’t eat them either! And then I’d have all of these cookies.  So I would bring them to school, feed my lunch table, all that kind of stuff. That carried over to Fordham, [especially] last year and this year, since I live in an apartment where I have my own kitchen. It’s the same logic: I’ll make a batch of cookies and I can’t eat all of them.  So I go around, distribute them to friends, many of whom I have met through Honors, one way or another. It’s also a great way to see people and catch up, talk—and then they get a cookie out of that.

Megan:   Do you have a signature baked item?

Stephen: Yes, chocolate chip cookies are my signature.  Not particularly fancy, but a classic.

Megan: And well-loved by all!  So, in terms of Honors, do you have either a favorite thing about the program, or a favorite memory, looking back now that you’re just about done?

Stephen:  There’s definitely a few!  I would say the fact that you’ve got 13 kids per class, really.  The fact that you can have really close discussions in basically every single class because of that [is really special].  Also, the nature of the class brings everyone together really fast. By the end of the first year, my [cohort] was very tight-knit.

Megan: Yeah, that’s really great!  Do you have a favorite Honors professor?

Stephen: I have different ones for different reasons.  First semester, I absolutely loved Dr. Harry Nasuti. He’s wonderful.  He would tell us about back in the day when he was the director [of the Honors Program].  He told our class the first day, “These are going to be your best friends” and I told him two years later, “Dr. Nasuti, you were 100% right.”   

All [of the Honors professors] have been good—we’re talking about the best of the best of the best.  I had Professor Nick Paul for Medieval History and no matter what the subject was, he was able to make it fascinating.  The way he talked about everything would make it seem so interesting and you would get just as invested as he was in the subject

Megan: What’s one thing you’ll miss most about Fordham?

Stephen: I have thought about that one a little bit because Pep Band season just wrapped up.  The [women’s basketball team] won the A10, so we went to the NCAA tournament in Syracuse and that was basically my last game.  Other than Honors, Pep Band was a really good group for me; I met a lot of my close friends there. I’ll also miss the Honors Program.  I’ll miss having a community around me of people of that caliber of intelligence and being able to hold discussions with them about virtually anything—that’s going to be something that I don’t think I’ll be able to find outside of Fordham or really anywhere.  So I’ll certainly miss that.

In terms of what I’m excited about, I’m moving out to St. Louis and I’m starting from scratch.  I’m excited to start over and build up a great group around me, or try to! I think it’s something that certainly daunting as a task, but it’s one of the most rewarding things.  I’ve done it twice now—once in high school and once at Fordham—and it really is just so rewarding. And I think Fordham prepares you well to do that by teaching you to care for the whole person, teaching you how to think and connect, and giving you the knowledge base to be able to connect with other people.  It all prepares you well, and I think it’s prepared me well to do that [in St. Louis].

Professor Spotlight: Dr. Dana Miller

Recently, junior Matt Brewer had the opportunity to speak with Professor Dana Miller, who is known among current Honors students for his first-year Ancient Philosophy course. Professor Miller will remain a part of the Honors Program’s new curriculum, as he is set to teach the new Foundational Texts: Philosophy course this coming fall. During their conversation, Matt asked Professor Miller about his past, the Honors Program, and his current interests in philosophy.

Matt: How long have you been a professor in the Honors Program?

Prof. Miller: I have a syllabus from 1999, but I might have one from before that, I’m not sure. About twenty years.

Matt: What do you like most about the Honors Program?

Prof. Miller: Well, I like the seminar format. And, I like the fact that the students are engaged; they work hard, they actually do the reading, by and large. The students’ writing is almost always good. So it’s rewarding to teach Honors students because they’re smart, hard-working, interested, and interesting. I think that’s a big factor.

[pauses to think for a moment]

It is interesting to me, the fact that I get the incoming freshmen. It’s a plus and a minus. It’s a minus because it’s kind of my job to turn high school students into college students.

Matt: I think that’s why people remember your class, in particular. They go through that transition there.

Prof. Miller: That’s right. [laughs] I apply the iron to their flesh. I think that’s why.

Matt: Well, someone has got to do it.

Prof. Miller: That’s right, exactly. But, it’s also a good thing that [freshmen] haven’t really made up their minds, one way or another. A lot of people haven’t taken philosophy, so they haven’t been misinformed about philosophy. It’s harder to get ideas out of people’s heads than it is to get ideas into people’s heads. And so, it’s more of a blank slate and it’s a lot easier to write on a blank slate. And, I think incoming freshmen are more receptive.

Matt: Especially with all the disciplines and perspectives that you’re exposed to in the Honors Program.

Prof. Miller: Yeah, for sure. I also like the fact that I get to know basically everyone [in the Program]. And, if there are issues, then there’s somewhere to go to talk to, the leaders of the Program. So, there’s this oversight of the students as individuals that you don’t get in ordinary classes. By the end of the semester, I know people pretty well, and I think that’s a good thing. I think it allows more communication both ways.

I said at the beginning of the semester to the freshmen last year, don’t look at me or any of the other professors as replacement fathers or mothers. I’m not your father, but I am your friend. And, I’m here to try to be useful and helpful to you, but I’m not going to treat you in some kind of paternalistic way. You’re here for a purpose, and I’m going to fulfill that purpose.

Matt: Do any moments or memories stand out to you from Ancient Philosophy classes of the past?

Prof. Miller: Funny moments stand out for me. This one girl, she got one of these cards, right in the middle of the semester. [Former students of Professor Miller may recall his deck of playing cards, which he uses to randomly select a student to speak in the seminar]. And she yelled out an expletive! So that was pretty hilarious. [laughs] There was one student years ago, on a midterm, she drew on odd picture, so then, when I returned the midterm, I added to her picture. She kept that, and senior year, at the end of the year, she presented it at the Honors Banquet. That was funny.

Matt: Have you always studied philosophy?

Prof. Miller: So, I studied philosophy in undergraduate, and both Mary Callaway, [Honors first-year literature professor] and I went to undergraduate at St. John’s Annapolis. We were there at the same time, but I don’t think we were in the same year. So that was mostly philosophy. I found that really quite interesting, as we moved through the program, we took ancient, some medieval, then early modern. I never felt that I understood the ancients. Actually, I was pretty radical at that time, and I thought reason was the enemy of humanity. So I had to be persuaded that there was some purpose to it, that reason had some purpose; I should have been reading Hume. But then, after an entire year of that, I actually came around, and said, “well, yeah, I can see it.” Philosophy is all about reason and making rational sense of things, and after a year, I saw the point.

Matt: So philosophy has always been something you’ve been interested in?

Prof. Miller: Well, I was curious, but I didn’t really study it in a formal sense, I just studied it on my own. Then, I had this first year [at St. John’s], and I had read a lot of Nietzsche back then, that kind of stuff. So that was intellectual stimulation. I was also reading a lot of nineteenth-century French poetry, and a lot of literature, Joyce, lots of stuff, so I was filling my mind with all kinds of things. So I got into it in college, but then I felt that I never really understood the Greeks, and then after college, I decided I had to figure out what I was going to do.

Matt: Did you have other jobs after college, before you entered academia?

Prof. Miller: Yeah, I had a few jobs and they were enjoyable, but they weren’t using my mind. I had done tree-work for quite a bit, and I enjoyed it, but, tree-work is not a job for old men. [laughs] So, I tried a bunch of other things, and said, what am I going to do? So, I decided to go back to school. I went to Boston University to get an MA, and then I got into Harvard and got another MA there, and by that time I was already interested in the ancients again — ancient Greece, the classics. Then I got kind of bored with the classics. It’s wonderful literature, but if you really study it professionally, nobody asks the question, “why?” It’s always “that,” right? So, you’re looking at a text, and you try to figure out the grammar, and you try to figure out what they say, and once you’ve done that, you’re done. There’s no attempt to take it deeper, to get beyond what’s there on the page, and that got pretty tedious to me in a hurry.

Matt: So, are your research interests now exclusively in ancient philosophy?

Prof. Miller: Not exclusively. What I’m really interested in now is the intersection between philosophy and neuroscience; so philosophy of perception, connections to skepticism. I’m currently working on a project that has to do with an interesting question in neuroscience, [whether consciousness is multisensory or unisensory]. Interestingly enough, Aristotle spends quite a long time wrestling with this very same problem, and he’s got some very, very very complicated discussions of this in one of his treatises. So, I’m spending time trying to see where Aristotle might be situated in this contemporary debate. That’s the kind of thing I’m interested in: bringing [ancient philosophy] into what we’re thinking about now, rather than it being an historical inquiry. There’s no difference between a fifth-century Greek and me with respect to perception. So, it’s perfectly sensible to look to see if there are links between their perception of what’s going on and our perception of what’s going on.

Matt: Do you have a favorite philosopher?

Prof. Miller: Yeah, I’d say Hume. When I read Hume, I just laugh, and laugh. He has a fantastic sense of humor, and he’s so radical, and he’s radical in this twisted way, with a smile and a twinkle in his eye; it’s like he has a knife, and he takes hold, and he keeps twisting it. He’s not entirely right; I think he’s starting from assumptions that I think aren’t quite defensible, but that’s what people thought in the day, and what he does with that, is unbelievable. And, he was right about a whole lot of things. His primary arguments and primary positions are still valid today. The guy was a genius, and on top of that, a wonderful writer. It’s such a joy to read his philosophical works. I like good philosophy in general, Plato obviously, Aristotle obviously, but Hume is special. Maybe it’s easy to read because it’s English; with Plato and Aristotle, you have to dive back into the Greek.

Matt: In closing, is there anything you’d like to say about the Honors Program?

Prof. Miller: Teaching three classes back-to-back is tough. It involves the same preparation, but people don’t realize how much effort is involved in making a seminar work. You’re at maximum level of attention, trying to hold things together, and trying to get people to understand things. That’s a lot of nervous energy poured into every class. So, it’s a commitment. But it seems to me that the quality of the Program comes from the students, and how much they put into it, and that’s why I like it. If I didn’t enjoy the students, then I wouldn’t be in the Program.

Matt Brewer and the Honors Program thank Professor Miller for his time and for the insightful answers he provided for this interview.

Senior Spotlight: Andrew & Kacie

Author: Megan Schaffner, junior

After meeting through the Rose Hill Honors Program, seniors Kacie Candela and Andrew Seger started working together on their WFUV podcast, Prickly Politics. The podcast covers a range of topics, providing crucial information for the everyday listener to become an informed voter in New York elections.  With two complete seasons, Prickly Politics has gained attention and traction, receiving shout-outs from multiple New York reporters and WFUV alumni. Kacie and Andrew recently spoke to me about the podcast’s beginnings, both past and future projects, and how their work on Prickly Politics has shaped their experiences in Honors.

Q: Can you introduce us to the podcast?

Kacie: The podcast is called Prickly Politics– prickly like a cactus. It started two years ago and I was one of the original co-hosts. Andrew came on for the second season, and we were covering Mayor De Blasio’s 2017 election for his second term. Then this last election season, we covered the midterms in New York, focusing on Governor Cuomo’s race, the Democratic Primary with Cynthia Nixon, the Attorney General race — which was a surprise race because Schneiderman had to step down last year –and other crazy midterm and state legislature [elections].

Q: So how did the podcast get started? Kacie, you said you were an original member?

Kacie: We definitely saw a need at the [WFUV] station for a politics podcast, because a lot of our day-to-day coverage, which Andrew and I have been doing for years, is day-of or  day-to-day press conferences. It’s not really a zoomed-out guide for voters to be educated moving into an election season. So, for example, if you care about the environment, [we cover] what you need to know about the candidates’ stances on the environment for you to be an educated voter. We spent an entire episode talking about that, talking about the [environmental] issues in New York state, and talking to a Green Party candidate.

Andrew: I think the big idea was to be a go-to resource for all things on the election, whereas if we were doing day-of reporting on, say, Governor Cuomo talking about an issue, this kind of [big picture] stuff gets swept under the news cycle. [We wanted to have], like Kacie said, episodes devoted to topics, [such as] months of a candidate’s policy stances and speeches — just being able to be the resource for people wanting to know what’s going on in the election.

Kacie: It’s for the everyday person. A lot of talk shows are geared towards insiders who are following the day to day, political nitty-gritty, and we were hoping to reach a wider audience of people who may not know anything about local politics and just want to be able to make a good decision on election day.

Q: Has the podcast grown or changed in any ways you weren’t expecting?

Andrew: I think we got a solid following this season. That didn’t [necessarily] surprise me, but I was impressed by how much of a reach we had and how many influential reporters or political heads listened to us. We got a lot of shout-outs on Twitter from big New York politics reporters. Scott Detrow,  a WFUV alum and the NPR congressional correspondent, is a big deal and for him to shout us out on Twitter, it’s a really rewarding feeling to know that people are listening and people are taking stuff away from this.

Kacie: And on that note, FUV has provided us with a network of really amazing, supportive reporters who have maybe stayed in New York, maybe went national, who want to support people who work at FUV and our work.  We’ve had a handful of FUV alums who are still covering New York politics join us on the show about what they’re covering right now. Having their support, their Twitter retweets, things like that, has made us feel like we’re part of this wider community.

Q: Has being involved in this podcast shaped any of your course decisions or the way you approach Honors course readings or classwork?

Andrew: Actually yes! It’s been very helpful tying in current events to different course topics, especially studying the Modern period [in the Honors curriculum]. For example, in an economics and ethics class with Professor Mary Beth Combs we focused on contemporary issues that we know are affecting New York. Or, in [our modern religion class], knowing what’s going on in New York’s Jewish community and the political turmoil surrounding that. In the craziest circumstances, I can say “Oh, this is going on in New York right now!” and it relates so perfectly to what we’re talking about in classes now at the end of the Honors curriculum.

Kacie: I have a lot of distinct memories of incorporating things that I’ve experienced working at FUV in my Honors classes and I think that more than half the time, the professor [had no idea].  It’s so interdisciplinary because the things we learn about in Honors are applicable to Society [as a concept], and things we cover at FUV are societal problems of poverty, healthcare, immigration and education [at a local level]. Things that we’ve learned about in a global, historical context still relate to New York.

Q: What’s next for Prickly Politics?

Andrew: So we’re working on a new season of the podcast which is a little different than the way the other two have worked. They’ve been elections and political coverage, and now we’re doing a deep-dive investigative series into the problem of sexual harassment and misconduct in Albany. Within the State Senate and Assembly, there’s historically been this culture and tolerance of corruption and misconduct, so we’re doing a little bit historical, but mostly recent, overview talking with survivors who have lived through this harrassment, either in Albany or in different district offices around New York City and New York state.  We have already talked to legislators who have served alongside these perpetrators and [we are hoping to] also talk to new faces who are bring change to the issue — either new politicians who are entering their first time in office or advocates who are taking a stand against the sexual harassment in Albany.

Kacie: The incidents we are looking at are from the last 20 years or so, basically the start of the century until now.  Some things have changed, but some things haven’t, and our hope for the project is that we can shine a light on how the institution of the New York State Legislature and ethics bodies have really failed survivors of workplace harassment and misconduct and how efforts at reform have been successful thus far, looking to the future. It’s probably my favorite thing I’ve ever worked on – and that’s saying something because I love covering elections.

Andrew: We’re looking forward to it! It’s exciting, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Kacie Candela is an IPE (International Political Economy) double major and Philosophy minor.  She will be attending law school after graduation.

Andrew Seger is an IPE major and Philosophy minor. He hopes that his two past internships at CNN will help him land a job there in May and plans to pursue a career in news production.

Check out all of the Prickly Politics podcasts on their website ( and follow them on Twitter @pricklypodcast!

Senior Spotlight: Santiago Sordo Palacios

Santiago is a Mathematics-Economics major from Chicago, Illinois. He will be working as an Associate Economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago after graduating in May. His Honors Senior Thesis explores whether there is a game theoretical model to explain political instability in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez.


Why Fordham/Why Honors?

Santiago chose Fordham because he was attracted to the Jesuit mission of the school, and because of two excellent campus visits. (On one visit, even though Fordham was closed, an admissions officer set Santiago up with a private tour of campus.) Santiago was excited to be invited to join the Honors Program because he knew its community and the experience of its curriculum would enrich his time in college. And they have!


Favorite Honors Class

Santiago’s favorite honors class was Religion in the Modern World with Dr. Kathryn Reklis. Analyzing what religion means in the modern world challenged his assumptions and pushed him to think in ways he considers “eye-opening.” Santiago believes that this analytic approach has helped him think more critically in his major classes, too. He seeks to assess, not merely accept, what he’s taught.


Other College Involvement

One of Santiago’s favorite extracurricular activities has been leading Fordham’s retreats. During these weekend trips, he’s been able to interact on a spiritual level with different kinds of people with whom he shares classes and a social life, and this, he feels, has both enriched and expanded his Fordham experience.


Feelings about Moving On

While Santiago will miss New York City, he is excited to be moving to his hometown and starting an engaging job with the knowledge that he is leaving college with a really strong and diverse set of skills. The strong liberal arts background of Fordham Honors will bolster his economics and mathematics skills, and he feels confident he’ll be able to apply all of this in his new job and professional future in Economic policy or research.