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Shaping the Future – The 2017 President's Circle Celebration

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President Burwell and Jack Cassell stand with Mark Bergel
President Burwell and Jack Cassell, Chairman of the AU Board of Trustees, congratulate Mark Bergel (center)

American University is shaping the future. More than 250 AU donors and friends joined President Sylvia Burwell and AU leadership at the President’s Circle Celebration on October 19, the eve of All-American Weekend, to celebrate and reflect on the many ways AU looks to the future and leads.

The President’s Circle Celebration is a longstanding AU tradition to gratefully acknowledge the philanthropic leadership that empowers the university to continue its important work. Highlights of the event included the presentation of the Cyrus A. Ansary Medal to alumnus Mark Bergel, founder and executive director of A Wider Circle, and an on-stage discussion between President Burwell and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, on the future challenges and opportunities in U.S. national security.

For many of the attendees, it was a first opportunity to meet President Burwell, who began her tenure as AU’s 15th president on June 1. “In case you haven’t realized it, you’ve hit the jackpot,” said Haass, who has known Burwell for decades through work on the Council on Foreign Relations. “Some people are good at conceptual, some are operational, every blue moon someone comes along who’s both—someone who can work at 36,000 feet and at sea level. You’ve got that person here. Congratulations.”

Haass, an award-winning diplomat, advisor, and author of 13 books, joined Burwell in a conversation entitled, “Making a Difference: Future Challenges and Opportunities in U.S. National Security.” In a conversation that included developments in North Korea, China, and Russia in our interrelated world, though cautionary, Haass said it is an exhilarating time in foreign relations. “This a moment where you actually can feel history being shaped,” Haass said. “By far this has been the most exciting time to be in the field of international relations. We’re not debating how many warheads go on how many nuclear launchers, we’re debating first order questions—what is America’s role in the world, what is the nature of world order, how do we deal with globalization? This is the moment of creativity and formation in international relations in way we haven’t seen in centuries.”

In considering the role of universities in shaping the future, Haass remarked, “The things that drive history more than anything else are ideas and people. Guess what? AU is in the ideas and people business. Your graduates are going to leave here and have the capacity to make a difference.”

Mark Bergel, CAS/MS ’87, CAS/PHD ’96, also addressed AU’s role in making a difference as he accepted the Cyrus A. Ansary Medal in recognition of his leadership as a role model to American University’s students and alumni. Bergel, founder and executive director of A Wider Circle, is a trailblazer in the movement to end poverty. In 2001, Bergel, then teaching at American University, volunteered along with his students to deliver food to needy families in the national capital region. It was the impetus to begin the organization that has served more than 150,000 children and adults.

“AU has been the most influential place in my life,” Bergel said. “I started A Wider Circle while teaching a class in Hurst Hall and it was actually birthed from a class project. If not for American University students I would not have been able to get it off the ground.” He joked that there are so many “proud Eagles” as staff and volunteers of A Wider Circle that “it’s almost like AU east.”

“Every week people tell me that the needs are endless—I'm here to tell you that they're not. The needs are not endless: our capacity to help one another is endless, the solutions are endless, that's what is endless,” Bergel told the group. “AU taught me to change the reality of the most vulnerable among us. I believe we can end poverty because we must end poverty.”

The Cyrus A. Ansary Medal, established in 1990, is among the highest awards bestowed by American University each year to an individual of great distinction and leadership in civic and corporate affairs, as a role model to American University's students and alumni. Past recipients include J. Willard Marriott Jr., David Lloyd Kreeger, and Alan L. Meltzer. The AU Board of Trustees created the award to recognize the leadership and counsel of Ansary, a trustee from 1969 to 1996, serving as chairman from 1982 to 1989. Chairman emeritus Ansary attended the President’s Circle Celebration along with his wife, Jan, and members of his family. At the celebration, Courtney Surls, vice president of development and alumni relations, shared that the Ansary Foundation donated one million dollars this year to support new student scholarships. The Ansary-Kerwin Scholarships were named to recognize the work and achievements of former university president Neil Kerwin, and to celebrate the Ansary family’s long affiliation with American University.

Because student creativity and artistic expression connect to the wonders of the future, the President’s Circle Celebration also featured student work in audio technology, pop-up dance, the AU Jazz Ensemble, and the AU Chamber Singers.