The Agora turns 50

From left, Andrew Hoppert, Carla Crockett, Danny Shaw, Ashley Hammer, Marisa Beste, Asia Rapai, Jennifer Niswender, Symone Thomas, and Ashley LeTourneau made up the 2009-2010 staff.

It all began 50 years ago in February – the Agora printed its first issue on Feb. 22, 1968.

Over the decades, the Agora has put out countless editions and tackled almost every topic under the sun. It has charted the growth and development of the college, its staff and students, plus the communities beyond.

As former staff and advisers look back, not a single one of them seems to have a bad word about their tenure.

Jeremy Potter, now a seventh-grade social studies teacher in Ida, was on the Agora from 1992 to 1994.

“I was on the staff right out of high school,” he says. “I started out as a staffer. By my second year, I was editor with another classmate of mine, Liesl Heck – now Liesl Riggs.”

Potter grins as he remembers his tenure.

“I absolutely, totally loved it!” he says. “The stress level was high, as you might know, but overall it was a blast. Easily my favorite thing that I did out here for sure.”

From 2009 to 2010, Jennifer Niswender was editor, having joined in 2008.

Now a commercial loans specialist at Monroe Bank & Trust, Niswender says that the Agora has helped her in her current job.

“At times, it was challenging,” she says. “But, I wouldn’t have changed it one bit. It helped me develop many skills, such as leadership skills, that I now find helpful today.”

“Absolutely!” says Emily Chandonnet when asked if she enjoyed her time on staff.  

Chandonnet was on the Agora from 2007 to 2009 and editor starting in 2008. She is now a middle school teacher in Palm Coast, Florida.

“It provided me with a wonderful opportunity to not only learn more about journalism skills in writing and design,” she says, “but to take on a leadership role which strengthened me as a person and guided me to a career in education.”

Former adviser Mark Bergmooser remains on-campus, still serving as a professor of Speech, Humanities, and Taekwondo. He explains that he came into the position when the paper was temporarily shut down.

“The Agora was on hiatus, I believe from 1994 to 1996. It had ceased publication in that two-year span,” he says. “There was some low enrollment in ‘90s in terms of staff members.” 

He said Ann Orwin, who was an assistant professor of English at the time, taught Journalism and and advised the Agora.

Potter remembers Orwin fondly.

“She was outstanding; she knew when to step in, she knew when to step away. She was really good at holding our staff together,” he said.

“We still keep in touch.”

During spring semester of 1996, Orwin undertook a study on how to get the Agora back up and running. 

“She did some recruitment at high schools and things of that sort,” Bergmooser says. “I was brought on board in the Fall of ‘96. I was hired to bring the Agora back.” 

At the time, Bergmooser explains, he was a part-time faculty member teaching some speech courses.

“Part of my Communications degree is in Journalism. I started recruiting that fall,” he says. “I visited local high schools, going into their Journalism programs and interviewing people about a Journalism scholarship in an effort to bring the Agora back in the Winter of ‘97.”

Things went off without a hitch, and the Agora did indeed return that January.

“I think we had about eight students that first semester. It was great!”

In Fall of 2008, Bergmooser passed the torch on to the current adviser and professor of Journalism, Dan Shaw.

“I believe, in the end there, that I’d taken the Agora as far as I could,” Bergmooser says.

“It’s hard for me to imagine teaching journalism without having a working laboratory like the Agora,” Shaw says. “It gives students a chance to practice journalism – writing, photograph, design, and production – in a very real environment. 

“While every staff has fun, it’s also serious. They know thousands of people will read their stories. Their work can make a difference.”

Each person has a favorite part of their time on the Agora.

“It’s funny,” Bergmooser says, “as the adviser, I found that the last thing I used in my time there was Journalism experience and knowledge. It was more my people skills and the communication.

“I loved the late nights,” he says. 

He explains that he would teach a taekwondo class around 9 p.m., then head to the Agora to check on the students as they were putting the paper together. 

“Sometimes I’d go home – I live close by – and they’d call me and I’d come back until like one or two in the morning,” he said.

Chandonnet and Niswender cite the annual trip to New York City for the College Media Association’s National Spring Convention.

“Not only did we bond to extreme levels, but everything we learned and experienced I have treasured,” Chandonnet says. “Whether it was getting lost on the Metro, taking a limo to the airport, seeing ‘Phantom of the Opera’ or exploring the city after hours of inspirational workshops, we had each other’s backs and loved getting to know one another.”

“I was lucky enough to be able to attend in 2009 and 2010,” Niswender says. “The conference had many workshops that would eventually help each and every one of us in their journalism career.

“But one of my favorite memories from New York City was when I got picked to be able to tour the New York Times,” she says. “That is something I will never forget. There is just something about coming home from a conference in the journalism hub of the world that can really motivate you.”

Shaw also loves the New York trips.

“It’s not only the first introduction to New York City for many of them,” he says, “it’s also a chance to rub shoulders with some of America’s great journalists. More than one student has come home a changed person, committed to the value of journalism in a free society and dedicated to being part of that.”

However, in terms of memories, perhaps none is more exciting and surreal than the one Potter brings up.

 “We had just gotten on staff. It was September or October, right around this time in ’92. All the sudden, Dan Quayle decides he’s going to come to Monroe County Community College right in the middle of a race,” he says.

“At that point it was all hands on deck!” Potter says. “Every single staff member is covering this from one angle or another.”

His excitement, both then and now, is palpable. 

“They had it right down there between the A Building and the C Building. I remember seeing the snipers on top of the C Building over there. 

“It was surreal for us – especially for me, because I live in Ida. Nothing ever happens in Ida!

“The opportunity to cover that was phenomenal.”

Now, looking to the next half-century, the alumni were asked what advice they would give to current and future Agora staff.

“This isn’t just a place where you get to explore the concepts of journalism,” Chandonnet says, “but somewhere you can debate the hard issues while creating life-long bonds and equipping you to be a better person and citizen.”

“If journalism really is your passion, keep writing and pushing your writing to its limits,” says Niswender. 

“The long, late nights I stayed at the college – even coming in on the weekends – to design pages and finishing editing so we could meet our print deadline, were really tough but worth it.

“Stay honest, loyal and you must have thick skin. Keep an open mind and stay unbiased.”

Potter gestures to the bulletin board next to the editor’s desk.

“That sign there – ‘You only think it’s a crisis’! That’s perfect!” he says. “I mean, as an editor or a staffer, especially around deadline time, you feel like the world’s caving in on you. It’s not.”

Bergmooser stresses that the Agora is for everyone.

“Anybody can get involved! One of the best editors I ever had – Amelia – was a tech student!”

As for Shaw, he ends with a bombshell.

“This will be my last year advising the Agora – I’m retiring next May,” he says. “Without a doubt, the Agora is what I’ll miss most about MCCC.”