He Wants What’s Best for You: Professor Nagengast

Humans of Juniata College


Alexander Drucker, The Common Man

Before meeting Dr. Emil Nagengast, I was nervous. All I knew about him was that he teaches politics and is infamous for giving students zeroes on papers over small errors. I wasn’t expecting him to be so easily caught off guard. Many of my questions were met with a confused laugh, and an “I don’t know.” It was as if he had never thought about himself before, or he felt as if there was nothing about him to say. In the very beginning of our interview, when asked an admittedly odd question, he stumbled for a few moments. Then his eyes flashed, as if he suddenly understood some hidden meaning behind my words. Nagengast has the eyes of an expensive cat. “To try to say something interesting…” he said to himself, then answered.

Nagengast met his wife at the University of Pittsburgh. On September 25, 1992, they went on their first date. A week later they got engaged, and in a year they were married. Nagengast says that he was thirty-yearsold at the time and knew what he wanted. In that one week the couple discussed their goals in detail, like “what would we name the kids, animals, what kind of house we wanted to have, what kind of career, what kind of values—we talked about all that kind of stuff.” They were on the same page with everything, so they went for it. Nagengast wouldn’t recommend getting engaged after a week for anyone else, but somehow it’s worked for him—he and his wife have been married for twenty-five years.

When looking for somewhere to work, Nagengast’s priority was staying in Pennsylvania. He and his wife had a son, and his in-laws were holding the child hostage. Nagengast searched for two years and collected 150 rejection letters before finding Juniata. He keeps these rejection letters in his office, on one hand because he feels “sorry” for himself, but also because when students complain about being rejected for scholarships, he likes reminding them that “life is rejection. You gotta apply for as many things as you can, and at the end of the day, one of them has got to work.” Or at least, he would remind his students of this if he could find where he put those letters in his tomb of an office.

When asked if he might die in his office one day, Nagengast replied, confused by the question, “I don’t know.”

Juniata also worked for Nagengast because of its size. “If you go to a big university you’re locked into whatever your field is, your specific field—because you’re part of a big machine and everybody’s got their division.” Nagengast started out studying Soviet politics, but he later switched to German politics, and finally to African politics.

He is very proud of the trips he takes with students to the Gambia. So proud, that he spent five minutes giving me a sales pitch. On the trip, students are immersed in the culture, society, and politics of the Gambia. Nagengast says his Gambian trip is the best study abroad program the College offers because “it’s as different from your life here as you can get.” He made sure that I left his office with a sheet of information on the trip, plucking it right off the wall.

Nagengast thinks he is forgiving, but he quickly admits that his students may disagree. When asked about his notorious grading style, he says, “That’s my job.” It would be easier to give his students Bs on their papers despite all the mistakes, but Nagengast would rather push his students “to the place they need to be.” He has high expectations of his students, which he says contributes to his overall “grumpy” demeanor (According to Nagengast, the key to happiness is having low expectations.) He starts out defensive about his strategies, but there’s a note in his voice toward the end of his explanation that sounds something like defeat, or perhaps longing. He pauses and says, “I want students to know that I very much care about them, in terms of them doing what they need to do so they can achieve whatever they want to achieve in life.”

Nagengast’s favorite president is Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln possessed many abilities that Nagengast says he himself lacks, such as holding no grudges, working with people who hate him, and avoiding pettiness or vengeance. “He really was able to put the higher aim of the country above petty things that inhibit all of us.” Nagengast defines weakness as knowing what you should do and not doing it. He acknowledges that he has weaknesses, and that he is imperfect compared to “amazing” people like Lincoln.

Before concluding our interview, Nagengast expressed his appreciation for The Juniatian. He says it saddens him to see that newspapers are being read less and less, especially by young people. He expressed less appreciation for The Juniatian’s Editor-in-Chief Rian Fantozzi, who is also his student. He says, pronouncing Rian like ReeANN, “I want him to stop sleeping in my class every day! He thinks I don’t see him, sitting in the back corner, and just nods off every single day. And he just got a zero on the freakin’ quiz. Rian, read the books, it’s not that hard. It’s 150 pages, you can’t read 150 pages?” He laughs.


“I do not sleep during class. I merely rest my eyes.” – Rian Fantozzi, Editor-in-Chief