c/o Magda Kisielinska, Photo Editor

c/o Magda Kisielinska, Photo Editor

An avid fan of the WesCeleb series, Ori Cantwell ’22 reported that he was not surprised by a single question that I asked him. Cantwell is a familiar face to most students due to his work in admissions, but beyond that, he’s also active in the Wesleyan Jewish Community (WJC) and the Quantitative Analysis Center (QAC). The Argus caught up with Cantwell to discuss his time at Wesleyan, his love for the QAC, and his passion for social science research. 

The Argus: Why do you think you were nominated to be the WesCeleb?

Ori Cantwell: I think I was nominated because of nepotism. I’m really good friends with Hannah [Docter-Loeb ’22] and she knows that I’m obsessed with the WesCeleb profiles. I’ve read almost all of them, and I always thought they were so cool. And then she was like, ‘You know, you could be a WesCeleb next year,’ and I was like, ‘That would blow my mind if I was a WesCeleb.’

More broadly speaking, I think it’s ’cause I’m involved in lots of different areas of campus that aren’t always combined, and I think that’s interesting to a lot of people, but I think that’s also really typical of Wes.

A: What is your major?

OC: I’m a psychology major with a data science certificate and a religion minor. I started as a religion major and psychology-religion double, and then I wanted to do data analysis originally. So I dropped the religion major. Then I really wanted to do data science, which is a little bit more classes and a capstone project, so I had to rearrange. 

My favorite thing about the psych major is definitely how research-focused you can be. I wasn’t particularly interested in studying psych. If Wes had, like, a social science research major, that’s what I [would have] wanted to do. And psych was the closest thing to that. So I still have to take a neuroscience class. 

A:  Can you tell me more about your involvement with the QAC?

OC: I love the QAC. I started being involved with QAC when I took applied data analysis. It’s such an approachable class, which is something that I think Wes does really well in terms of statistics education. If I had been at any other school, I would have felt really intimidated by data work, and I’m so glad that it felt approachable and open to people from different academic areas because I realized I love data analysis. And then I learned more about data science and realized I love that too. I really liked seeing how you could tell a story in a completely different way from any sort of humanities work I’d done before.

A: What else are you involved with on campus?

OC: I’ve been really involved with admissions since the beginning. I started [because] I needed to have a job on campus and I sort of thought maybe I’d take a few weeks to find something, but very quickly I found that there was this job open in admissions for a freshman. That’s how I got involved in being a tour guide and working at the front desk and then once the pandemic started, we started doing these things called WesChats, where prospective students of any grade can have an informational interview with a current student and it’s not evaluative. And I thought that was really fun to connect more one-on-one and now I’m a senior interviewer. I always thought, as an underclassman, that senior interviewers were just like the coolest group of seniors because they were all so passionate about Wes and involved in lots of different things but had a lot of respect and care for each other and seemed to all actually be friends. And that actually feels very true now to my experience. It’s a lot of people that I wouldn’t have gotten to know otherwise who I’ve always sort of admired from afar.

A: What do you like most about your work in admissions?

OC: Someone asked me what my favorite place on campus is, and I felt silly to say that it’s the actual Office of Admission. And it’s really because freshman year, it was a way for me to get out of what felt like the first-year bubble because I was working with people who lived in Middletown and were real adults with adult children. It made me feel a lot calmer to have interactions with people who weren’t just students.

A: Can you tell me a little about your involvement with the WJC [Wesleyan Jewish Community]?

OC: I’ve been involved with WJC since my freshman year, and [have] been on and off the board. It was a place where I found a sense of home on campus. I found a sense of belonging and really a way to interact with people across class years.

The WJC, for me, was a way to see students who had figured out how to balance their social lives and their academics and seemed happy. I also got to see sort of what it looked like to try and figure out what you were doing after college, which seemed scary to me at the time.

A: Do you have any favorite memories from your time at Wesleyan?

OC: Cooking Shabbat dinner in the Bayit, definitely. There was this party my sophomore fall in Zilkha Gallery, which was wild. I don’t know how that happened but it involved some sort of performance dance piece. We were in this University building that was really beautiful and it was being used as a full-on party space with flashing lights and the disco balls and stuff. So, so cool. I just felt like I was at the Met Gala. I certainly was not, but it felt really, really cool.

I talked to so many people who described that weekend as the peak of their sophomore year, but I think it’s because our sophomore spring was ruined by COVID.

A: How did COVID-19 affect your time at Wes?

OC: It’s weird that half of my college experience has been in the pandemic. 

Literally March 3 or 4, I was trying to figure out what I was going to do over the summer and I knew I was going to have to work part-time, but I also wanted to do research. I connected with my lab professor’s grad school friend, who had a lab with Georgetown University in D.C., where I’m from. I had an interview with him the day that we found out campus was shutting down and he was like, “I know things seem really scary right now, but there’s going to be a lot of data coming out around the pandemic and if you want to come to my lab, I’m working over the summer on this.” So I ended up using all this publicly available [data] and did a lot of research on anxiety around COVID. 

That’s something I’ve been working on since the pandemic started so I think that has also really defined for me a lot of the pandemic. We did a poster at a conference and then a manuscript, and I’m the first author on the manuscript. So I think that for me [it] was a moment of taking agency over my social science education. Yesterday, I submitted the second round of revisions for a journal. So fingers fucking crossed they accept it this time. My freshman year, I remember so many seniors telling me, “Figure out what you’re passionate about, that you can also do outside of class so that you feel fulfilled over school breaks and after college.” The pandemic propelled me into that research. 

A: Has that shaped the way you’re thinking about the pandemic?

OC: Yeah, absolutely. I study a lot about misinformation and disinformation related to COVID and public health misinformation and how it relates to anxiety and fear. This past year and a half plus has been a case study of that.

I think especially being at a school like last year where 99% of the student body is vaccinated and there’s this assumption of “of course we wouldn’t believe [COVID misinformation],” it really ignores the ways that social media spreads misinformation and the ways that people are vulnerable to that. That no one is too good to be tricked into believing something.

A: Speaking of misinformation, can you tell me about your thesis?

OC: So my thesis is about the spread of online misinformation and I am using a simulation model called the SIR model, which is what’s used to model the spread of COVID. I’m applying this idea of contagion dynamics to online misinformation, and it’s all about QAnon and QAnon-related misinformation. If you can think of any sort of visualization you’ve seen of how COVID can spread from person to person, it’s going to be that, but with social media users spreading misinformation.

A: If you could give your freshman-year self any advice, what would it be?

OC: I wish that freshman year I’d felt more comfortable in my own skin and more comfortable speaking up in class. It’s not stuff that I could have told myself to believe, but I think what I actually could have done is maybe like chill the fuck out a little bit more. 

What I really would tell my freshman year self is to use the library resources all the time. I order so many books from the library. I’ve met with the research librarian so much, and it’s crazy to think that after Wes I will not have access to that number of library resources. I feel like people don’t even know that you can order whatever book you want and they’ll buy it for you. I’ve ordered photography books that I was interested in, and I don’t even take photography classes. They’re just books that I was really interested in, and I didn’t want to pay for them because they were really expensive and the library will either order them from another library or find them for you. And you can renew stuff infinitely, people also don’t know that I’ve just been ordering textbooks from Conn. College and Trinity College and renewing them all semester for three years. 

A: How do you think your friends would describe you?

OC: I think they would describe me as being creative and just warm and welcoming. That’s something I really try to be. But also sort of techy. I’m always the one who can figure out a computer thing and knows lots of random information and weird niche interests. I know a lot about heated flooring systems. My dad’s a construction administrator, so I know lots of random things about buildings and construction, and I think that’s where a lot of my random facts come from.

A: How do you feel about graduating?

OC: I think I’m going to miss being in a space where there are constant engaging academic conversations that happen unintentionally. I really missed meeting up with people after class and continuing those conversations when we switched to Zoom.

A: Is there anything else you want to add about your time at Wesleyan?

OC: I’ve really appreciated how interdisciplinary things can be. Right now I’m doing a general scholarship thesis, and that’s something that I think is pretty unique to Wes. I really wanted to do a data science thesis, so the registrar’s office had to create a thesis tutorial for QAC cause that’s never existed before. Wesleyan’s a school where the administration is willing to work with you.

A: Has there been one professor or class that has been influential for you?

OC: Val Nazzaro in QAC taught my data visualization class, Intro to Data Visualization, and I’ve TAed for her twice now. I think it’s really a class that breaks down the idea that statistics is an exclusive club. I did a final project for her on Taylor Swift and registered as a developer with Spotify to get all their Taylor Swift data and made these visualizations. There was a student who did hers on “The Bachelorette.” It’s really fun.

The last thing I wanted to say was there’s this class I really want to take in the spring called Trump Evangelicals. If Professor Slaughter is reading this, I just really want to get in. It would rock my world if I could take Trump Evangelicals. I currently own the first book on the reading list, Jesus and John Wayne. I am so ready, like, please. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hallie Sternberg can be reached at hsternberg@wesleyan.edu or on Twitter @halsternberg.

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