What is a good life? How do we find a purpose from our talents and passions? And, how does religion (or its absence) inform our answers to these questions? These were the questions University of Chicago student Arjun Mazumdar (College ‘25) was asking himself as he designed his Nicklin Fellowship project – a reading group on Jorge Luis Borges and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Arjun is part of the inaugural cohort of Nicklin Fellows, a new initiative launched by the Lumen Christi Institute this year. The fellowship supports University of Chicago undergraduates in the pursuit of their academic interests, especially those related to existential questions of being and purpose. The fellowship cultivates robust, intellectual friendships rooted in a common love of truth, beauty, and goodness. 

We asked three fellows about their experience in the inaugural cohort of the Nicklin Fellows Program: Arjun, Jacob Neplokh ‘27, and Max Baumeister ‘25


LCI: UChicago already has a rigorous academic program. What does the Nicklin Fellows Program at the Lumen Christi Institute add to your intellectual pursuits?  


Arjun: I came to LCI seeking the “life of the mind” and conversations of great, canonical texts. LCI’s Fundamental Questions seminars, which I’ve attended as a Nicklin Fellow, have become a haven for me, a place to discuss fundamental questions with open-minded, intellectually curious peers. Being a Nicklin Fellow has enabled me to embody the University’s intellectual spirit more than any other activity or class, and my work this quarter has been among the most rewarding experiences of my college career. 


Jacob: The Nicklin Fellows Program was one of the highlights of my freshman year at the University of Chicago. The Nicklin Fellows Program gave me the opportunity to personally engage with scholars that LCI brings in, broadening my exposure to various thinkers even further.


Max: The Lumen Christi Institute not only adds to my intellectual pursuits, but actually allows me to pursue them in the first place. As a college student, you tend to mostly focus on...college. The Nicklin Fellows Program allows me to pursue my intellectual interests outside classes.


LCI: Part of the fellowship is designing and implementing an intellectual, community-oriented project. What is your Nicklin Fellows project and how did it go?  


Arjun: For my project, I designed a reading group that fuses fiction and philosophy to discuss existential questions: “Texts of Existence: The Interplay of Religion, Individualism, and the Cosmos in Borges and Nietzsche.” We read and discussed “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” and “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges, and selections from The Gay Science, by Friedrich Nietzsche. Anecdotally, I can confirm that regardless of their familiarity with Borges and Nietzsche, participants left feeling inspired, interested, and hungry for more.


Jacob: I am planning a reading group for next year on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The work is famously lengthy and dense, but guidance from LCI—like organizing conversations with Dostoevsky expert Paul Contino—will make this manageable and a success.


Max: My Nicklin Fellows project is a weekly reading group on James Burnham’s 1941 The Managerial Revolution, and it is great to be able to read it with students from all majors.


LCI: What are some questions you found yourself engaging with in your fellowship project or during the Fundamental Questions seminar? What inspired you to pick your fellowship project?


Arjun: My inquiries were: What is a good life? How do we find a purpose from our talents and passions? And, how does religion (or its absence) inform our answers to these questions? It seemed fitting for me to discuss these using a confluence of fiction and non-fiction existentialism, something rare within the classroom. Nietzsche inspires our critical faculties, while Borges excites our imaginations. It was this combination that allowed for a unique approach to our inquiries. These questions occupy the minds of most undergraduates, but academic and social pressures inhibit us from truly dedicating ourselves to them. The opportunity to debate these points, uninterrupted, for an hour and a half every other week, accompanied by two great thinkers, is nonpareil.  


Jacob: The first program I participated in at LCI was a fundamental questions seminar on José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. A key part of the text and discussion focused on an absence of a) respect for history (or tradition) and b) something higher to aspire to. Given Ortega y Gasset’s correct prediction on the destructive effects of such a condition, I wanted to interrogate an earlier text addressing similar existential themes. Particularly, The Brothers Karamazov focuses on religion—a potential solution often absent in contemporary discourse.


Max: Some big questions we found ourselves battling with in the fellowship project are (1) are we still living under capitalism? and (2) what even is capitalism? Burnham, as early as the 1940s, was already arguing that capitalism was in fact dead. Being a foreign policy student myself, I actually first became interested in Burnham for his influential foreign policy views. But then I realized that he actually had a very rich background in political philosophy and theory. After reading his book The Machiavellians, I knew I wanted to read The Managerial Revolution.


LCI: How will the Nicklin Fellows program prepare you to take future leadership roles in the workplace and society? 


Arjun: I had to prepare talking points for each session, introduce each text to a diverse audience, and develop a faithful, profound understanding of each text for my fellowship project. Most importantly, I had to field unexpected questions, mediate debates, and be willing to throw away my prepared notes when a more insightful discursive direction revealed itself. This summer, I will be working in a client-facing role in a corporate environment, and the ability to distill information quickly, translate arguments, and invite differing perspectives will be immeasurable. Most importantly, both Borges and Nietzsche emphasize the importance of time, the resilience of free will, and the merits of critically examining one’s values. These principles will make me a better co-worker, and employee. They have also helped align my professional ambitions more clearly with my passions. 


Jacob: The Nicklin Fellows program expects fellows to carefully prepare the pedagogical design of our projects. These skills will, of course, be quite helpful in any professional or social role because they depend on prudence and deliberation.


Max: It taught me that intellectual pursuits should be genuine in order to get the most out of them. It also taught me that intellectual pursuits should be unpretentious and shared. You never know who might share your interests.


LCI:  How did working with LCI’s staff help you shape this project and offer support?


Arjun: LCI was invaluable in helping me craft my project. Danny Wasserman encouraged me to apply, after observing my curiosity during LCI’s Fundamental Questions seminar on Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. Austin Walker helped me streamline my lofty proposal, and narrowed my extensive reading list down to two authors, who would most engage and excite students and offered advice on how to navigate Socratic conversations as a leader. Finally, David Strobach’s operational support was instrumental. I’m so grateful to the Lumen Christi Institute and its donors for investing in my intellectual development.  


Jacob: I owe much gratitude to the LCI staff for helping me to workshop my project idea, assisting with logistical matters, and for putting me in touch with a Dostoevsky expert: all have been crucial. More generally, I also want to thank the entire LCI team for creating a welcoming, intellectual space on campus.


Max: A better question would be “How did working with Lumen Christi staff NOT help you shape this project and offer support?” In short, the Lumen Christi Institute was incredibly supportive, useful, and generous. The Lumen Christi Institute provided the place, the material, nutrition, and most important, intellectual guidance. What else could a college student ask for?