My GS Story

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GS Alum Dina Bateman
Dina Bateman '07

Hometown: Houston, TX
Major at GS: Religion, with a Premedical Concentration
Path to GS:

  • Born in Colombia
  • Grew up in Houston with activist, feminist mom
  • Volunteered and taught English, Spanish and salsa dancing in Cambodia
  • Worked as a nanny in Florida

“As long as I can remember I wanted to be a doctor, but somewhere along the way I lost confidence in myself. Then in my first semester at GS, I was captivated by my Frontiers of Science class. When I found myself researching class topics just for fun, I realized that I needed to think again  about pursuing my original ambition. Doing well my first year gave me confidence, and my advisor and fellow GS students gave me the support I needed to embark on the path to medical school. Thanks to them I realized that it’s never too late to follow your calling.”

GS Alum Andre Bautista
Andre Bautista

Hometown: Allentown, PA
Major at GS: Neuroscience and Behavior
Path to GS:

  • Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps
  • Aviation radar repairman
  • Combat Marksmanship coach
  • 2009 Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year for Marine Air Group 48

"During my time as a Marine, I evolved into someone that was well disciplined and ready to meet any challenges that lay ahead of me. This was extremely helpful during my first few semesters at Columbia, but when I started studying the sciences, I found I needed some help grasping the material and strengthening my study skills. I took advantage of the many resources available to students such as free tutoring sessions for classes such as calculus and chemistry. What I found was that the most significant amount of help came from the faculty."

Columbia GS Alumna Mason Beard '04
Mason Beard '04

Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri
Occupation: Program Coordinator, Council on Foreign Relations
Major at GS: Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures
Path to GS:

  • Left high school at 16 to pursue dream
  • Intensive dance training
  • Professional Ballet Dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet

How she continued her story: Assistant Director at the Council on Foreign Relations (2004-2007); 2009 MBA from Columbia Graduate School of Business; Associate Director, CCS Fund Raising (June 2009-present)

Mason is helping close the education achievement gap as vice president of growth strategy at New York Needs You.

"When I decided to retire from my career as a professional ballet dancer, I accepted with some trepidation that I would be starting from scratch as I pursued jobs outside the dance world. Matriculating at General Studies enabled me to lose that fear and make a full-fledged commitment to the new direction of my life. Courses like Regime Change in the Middle East and Late Ottoman State and Society, combined with the skills and relationships I developed in student groups like the General Studies Student Council, prepared me to excel in a position at an influential foreign policy institution. My college experience turned a difficult career transition into an amazing opportunity for intensive academic and social exploration, and ultimately, helped me discover a whole new world!"

Current GS Student PJ Bodner
PJ Bodnar '10

Hometown: Half Moon Bay, California
Major at GS: Political Science and American Studies
Path to GS:

  • Police Officer
  • Moved from California
  • Father of three

“I joined the police force to serve my community and, after I was wounded in the line of duty, I wanted to continue to serve. I chose GS and moved to New York because I really feel that, if you want to be your best, you have to be taught by the best. That’s what Columbia offers: the chance to realize my potential.”

GS Alum Kyle Bukhari
Kyle Bukhari '13

Hometown: San Francisco, CA
Major at GS: Sociocultural Anthropology
Path to GS:

  • Graduate of the Joffrey Ballet School, New York City
  • Dancer with the Joffrey Ballet of New York, the Zurich Ballet of Switzerland
  • Freelance choreographer in Germany

"A lifelong dream of mine was to go to university, but due to my continuous performing schedule and international travel, it had not been feasible. I decided to finally make that dream a reality and enroll in college, and was accepted into the School of General Studies.

Having left high school in the 10th grade, and with no college experience, I hit the books, unaware of the rigors and expectations of Ivy League academia. I quickly adjusted and began to find my balance, adapting my discipline from dance and applying it to my studies."

GS Alum Anthony Carter
Anthony "Acar" Carter '08

Hometown: Newark, New Jersey
Major at GS: Psychology/ Education
Path to GS:

  • Inner-city Newark, NJ
  • Fixing things; electrician
  • Dad to little Toni
  • Restoration of rail service to World Trade Center
  • Teacher/Mentor

"As a kid, when my mom Fannie Mae went to church in the evenings, I spent my time repairing neighbors' knob-less black and white TVs needing antennas or their faulty light switches that sparked when flipped. My motto became "I fix things." These inner-city survival skills led to a career in the construction industry, yet I knew I had more to give to the world. As a student in GS's Program for Academic Leadership and Service, I am getting the education to fix things on a different level - one that allows me to pursue my dream of cultivating a positive environment for underprivileged youth through my ultimate goal of building an educational institution where their dreams can be realized."

GS Alum Sebastian Clegg
Sebastian Clegg

Hometown: Gorham, ME
Major at GS: Music
Path to GS:

  • Miami-Dade College graduate and PTK member
  • Haystack Writing Award winner
  • Dayroom supervisor at Prebel Resource Center for the Homeless

"My background is in blues and rock, but studying at Columbia has enriched my horizons: the one-on-one contact with world-class professors, small classes, legendary facilities, and thought-provoking coursework have encouraged me to explore various musical styles. Last semester my original string quintet, written in the style of Scriabin, was performed on campus by a professional ensemble at the Faculty House. Following my life's passion in this way has inspired me to further realize my vision."

GS Alum Orly Cohen
Orly Cohen

Hometown: Arad, Israel
Major at GS: Psychology
Path to GS:

  • Israeli Defense Forces Officer
  • Mother to the most amazing little boy, Daniel
  • Member of the GS Honor Society

"Eager to further my education, I applied to GS because I could not imagine myself studying anywhere else and began in the spring of 2006, attending part time. Three years later, I took some time off as my husband and I welcomed our first child into the world."

GS Alum Aries Dela Cruz
Aries Dela Cruz '09

Hometown: New York, NY
Major at GS: Anthropology
Path to GS:

  • Activist
  • Emergency Medical Technician

"Anthropology showed me that it’s not only about the answers, but the questions that are asked. In an increasingly globalized world, a Columbia education provides students with the capacity to formulate answers to questions that haven't even been asked yet.

I will always relish the opportunity to be exposed to a wide variety of gifted people who share views completely antithetical to mine. Columbia is not only what you learn inside the classroom, but also the experiences you go through along the way, with your fellow students, that will transform you into a cultivated and substantive individual."

GS Alum John DeSerio
John DeSerio '08

Hometown: Berkeley, CA
Major at GS: Political Science
Path to GS:

  • Baseball player
  • Professional ballet dancer
  • Labor organizer

"Having grown up the son of a hardworking plumber, I learned early that my career had to be something I loved doing, not just a job. That’s one of the reasons I became a professional ballet dancer and the main incentive I had for moving all the way from California to New York and studying here at Columbia. Since beginning my studies here, the opportunities that Columbia and New York City have offered have been unbelievable. I’ve discussed US policy with world-renowned professors, listened to heads of state speak on human rights, taken restoration ecology classes in the Brazilian rainforest and art history classes in Venice, Italy. I’ve also had the fantastic experience of being a member of the Columbia rowing team and rowing on the Harlem River. As a student at Columbia, you have the opportunities that New York City has to offer. I’ve seen shows of American Ballet Theater and seen incredible art exhibits at MoMa and the Whitney. Being a student at the School of General Studies at Columbia University has afforded me so many amazing experiences and opportunities, and I feel lucky."

Retired New York City fire-fighter David Drury is a Columbia GS alumnus.
David Drury '08

Hometown: Montgomery, New York
Major at GS: American History
Path to GS:

  • Retired New York City Firefighter
  • Rescue Operations Instructor for New York City Fire Dept.
  • Developed Spanish program for New York State Fire Academy
  • Designed and built family home (twice).

How he continued his story: In August 2009, Dave earned his masters degree from St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Dave is cultivating a career as a secondary school teacher.

"I may not look like a typical college student, but on this campus I feel like one, even though I have three college-aged sons. They are proud that I’ve gone back to school, and their support helps keep me focused. My goal is to major in American History and possibly teach high school. I am thankful to be here, and I look forward to each and every one of my classes. If I had a wish list, I couldn’t add to it."

GS Alum Erich Erving
Erich Erving '06

Hometown: Torrance, CA/Tucson, AZ
Major at GS: Literature-Writing
Path to GS:

  • Worked with developmentally disabled adults in a residential setting
  • Moved to New York to be closer to Europe
  • Social worker/paralegal/backup dancer/world traveler

Today: Erich is a poet and printmaker living in New York City.

“School and I never got along: my third grade teacher had me tested for the gifted program; my fourth grade teacher for special ed. By high school, I had enough and dropped out. I didn't slack off: over the years I explored careers from paralegal to performance artist to social worker to world traveler (not really a very lucrative career), but nothing felt right. At 29, I got my GED and discovered that I had an undiagnosed mathematics disability. A chance meeting with a Columbia professor in a local bakery led me to GS. When I stepped on to campus, it immediately felt right, and I submitted my application the next day. At first, I was only admitted provisionally, but I've proven myself, making the Dean's List several times.”

GS Alum Gac Filipaj
Gac Filipaj '12

Home Country: Montenegro
Major at GS: Classics
Path to GS:

  • Studied law in Belgrade, Serbia
  • Moved to the Bronx in 1992 to flee the turmoil in the Balkans
  • Custodian at Columbia University

"I love Seneca's letters because they're written in the spirit in which I was educated in my family—not to look for fame and fortune, but to have a simple, honest, honorable life." 

GS Alum Sagit Goldenberg
Sagit Goldenberg '10

Hometown: Ra'anana, Israel
Major at GS: Neuroscience and Behavior
Path to GS:

  • Branch manager for medical aesthetics company at the age of 17
  • Israeli Air Force Officer
  • Cardiovascular surgery assistant
Barely two months after finishing my military service in the Israeli Air Force, I packed my bags and moved all on my own to Los Angeles.
I attended a community college there for two years and planned to transfer to a nearby university. When I began the application process, my advisor strongly encouraged me to consider Columbia. It took some persuasion—I wasn't sure I was eligible, let alone a strong applicant, until I did some research and discovered GS.
For the past few years, to give back in a humble way to the GS community, I've served as an Orientation Leader. I consider myself very lucky to be able to take part in such an incredible event.
The excitement of the day, combined with the hesitation and uncertainty on the new students' faces, reminds me of when I first came to GS and reinforces how much I've grown both intellectually and personally since then. I always look forward to sharing my personal experience with the new students to help them make the most of an amazing opportunity.
Lakshmi Gopal '11
Lakshmi Gopal '11
Hometown: Adinad, Kerala, India/Washington D.C.
Major at GS: Visual Arts
Path to GS:
  • Proud Keralite
  • One-on-one training in Indian philosophy with a nationally acclaimed scholar
  • B.A. with honors in philosophy from King’s College, London
  • Enrolled at GS to pursue a 2nd Bachelor’s degree
Today: Graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

"At GS I encountered professors and mentors who were keen and honest observers of the world they inhabit. I attended classes with an amazing variety of people, all of whom have enriched my life and my worldview. I’m also grateful to have been able to share my culture and my passion with our campus community by organizing a concert, with the help of the Heyman Center for Humanities, by Ustaad Amjad Ali Khan, one of the foremost exponents of South Asian classical music."

GS Alum Christina Gray
Christina Gray '15

Hometown: Traverse City, MI
Majors at GS: Creative Writing and English
Path to GS:

  • Movie theatre projectionist
  • Claims assistant at a collector car insurance company
  • Bartender
  • Participated in the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program in France and Italy

"When I decided to return to school I was set on having the full experience that I'd been seeking the first time, but began to think it wasn't possible for someone with a background like mine—until I found out about GS. It was everything I wanted: I'd be taking classes alongside traditional undergrads, participating in the same extracurricular activities, and receiving the same degree."

Current GS Student Samantha Jackson
Samantha Jackson '11

 Hometown: Bay Shore, New York

Major at GS: Sociology
Path to GS:

  • High school track star
  • Graduated from community college
  • Hostos Global Scholar

“I am guided by the African principle Sankofa, which means to return to the past in order to build for the future. Thus, I have decided to study at Columbia for the purpose of building a future for our mis-educated children whose minds have been annihilated by violence.”

GS Alum Krystine Keller
Krystine Keeler '08

Hometown: Santa Monica, CA
Major at GS: Sociology
Path to GS:

  • Insurance broker
  • Retail manager
  • Nanny

"Leaving my close-knit family and my life long friendships behind when I moved to New York from California to attend GS was very hard, but it was something I had to do. I was fortunate to have had a lucrative career as an insurance broker, but all my success came in a field that I sincerely wanted to leave. Ultimately, I decided to downsize my life, and I moved into a relative's house so that I could pursue my education. I took a risk, and it has been totally worth it. My dream is to teach elementary school, so here I am, making that happen, and I'm not looking back!"

Sergei, a recent GS alumnus from Ukraine, is pursuing dreams of being a dentist.
Sergei Kuznetsov '09

Name: Sergei Kuznetsov
Hometown: Neteshin, Ukraine
Major at GS: History with Premed concentration
Path to GS:

  • Arrived in Texas as a foreign exchange student from Ukraine
  • Attended various community colleges
  • While living in Rochester, NY my stepfather turned me on to the healthcare field
  • Worked as a nurse for two years and decided I wanted to become a doctor

Today: Sergei is a student at Columbia University College of Dental Medicine.

"The instructors here, who are in many cases the leaders of their respective disciplines, set high standards for students, and I'm pleased to find they challenge my way of thinking: Be it Professor Pederson's discussion on the dilemma on ethics of post WW II British immigration laws or Dr. Mowshowitz's lecture on the use of viruses in genetic engineering. The administrators are easily reached for professional advice on anything from applying to a medical school to choosing a volunteer program. In this demanding and fast-paced atmosphere my classmates become a major part of my daily social support-system and together we even contribute to the neighborhood of Morningside Heights: Be it a Thanksgiving dinner at a fellow GS student's apartment or an AIDS awareness fair for the local community. I'm very happy about where I am nowadays."

GS Alum Pamela Arteaga Mata
Pamela Arteaga Mata

Hometown: Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico
Major at GS: Comparative Literature and Society
Path to GS:

  • Musical theater performer
  • Voice and dance instructor at a performing arts academy

Today: Legal Assistant and General Coordinator of the Mex-Am Cultural Foundation, Inc. at Grand, Hermann, Schwartz & Klinger LLP

"GS gave me the opportunity to choose my own focus while making use of all the languages that I speak. (I'm fluent in Spanish, French, and Italian.) I received an Italian Studies Scholarship Award and worked as a translator for the weekly Spanish edition of the Columbia Daily Spectator."

GS Alumna Lauren McFal
Lauren McFall '08

Hometown: Los Altos, California
Major at GS: Political Science
Path to GS:

  • Olympic athlete
  • That’s really all I had time to do
  • Seriously

Today: Lauren works in sales and electronic initiatives at a credit derivatives brokerage firm in New York City.

“When I was training as a synchronized swimmer, I was in the pool too early to watch the morning news, and after a 10-hour day of training, I was too exhausted to do anything but fall asleep. I felt pretty out of touch with the world outside of swimming. After competing in the Olympics, I wanted to see what other challenges awaited me, so I applied to GS. It’s comforting that I’m not the only person who took an alternate path to follow an extraordinary dream. Now, I’m working toward the next one. And the nice difference between academics and synchronized swimming—when I study, I don’t have to hold my breath.”

GS Alumnus Sean O'Keefe
Sean O’Keefe '10

Hometown: Cupertino, CA
Major at GS: Economics and Political Science
Path to GS:

  • Nationally recognized paintball player
  • US Army Special Forces
  • Community College Student

"After leaving the military I knew I wanted to pursue the best education possible. Initially I thought a school like Columbia was out of my league, until I attended a regional information session and found out about GS and its preference for students with nontraditional backgrounds like myself. Whether I’m meeting countless new friends who’ve helped push me to new heights, spending a summer in D.C. working for the U.S. Senate, or networking with other veterans at Mayor Bloomberg’s Veterans Day breakfast, my time at GS has been amazing."

GS Alum Nancy Saunders
Nancy Saunders '09

Hometown: West Hollywood, CA
Occupation: Political Science
Major at GS: Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures
Path to GS:

  • Waitress
  • Trader Joe's Crew Member
  • Commercial Real Estate: Development/HR

"I’ve always enjoyed studying politics, so majoring in political science seemed like excellent preparation for a career in law enforcement. But I’ve also enjoyed sampling some of the other disciplines at Columbia—for example, the Chinese Summer Language Program in Beijing was truly an exceptional opportunity. I’ve participated in student government and, although it was occasionally difficult to manage my responsibilities with my studies and outside obligations, the depth that they’ve added to my overall academic experience has been invaluable.

My favorite Columbia moment took place on the last day of my favorite class, “Challenges of Sustainable Development,” when Professor Jeffrey Sachs quoted the words of John F. Kennedy: “And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet” In that moment I realized Professor Sachs, over the course of the semester, had given me the tools to become a better member of our human family. For that, I was and am, most grateful."

Current GS Student Liza St. John
Liza St. John

Hometown: Manchester, TN
Major at GS: Undeclared
Path to GS:

  • Published author at age 12
  • American Musical and Dramatic Academy graduate
  • Working actress, with roles on MTV's Undressed, Chappelle's Show, and on stage

"After  years of going on auditions and working day jobs, I realized I missed learning and wanted to go back to school for a well-rounded education. At GS I’ve developed my creative writing skills and discovered new interests in  architecture and psychology while still auditioning and working. I took a semester off to get married, and I appreciate the flexibility that GS offers. After graduation I  plan to continue auditioning, but I’ll also be qualified in another field that I’ll enjoy as I pursue my career in acting."

Professor James J. Valentini
Professor James J. Valentini

Hometown: Lafferty, Ohio
Position at Columbia: Professor, Department of Chemistry; Dean, Columbia College

  • Dynamics of chemical reactions
  • Cycling
  • Cars
  • Restoring my old house
  • Being a dad to my three sons

"GS students enliven and enrich my courses. It is great to have people who have studied and worked as artists, accountants, publishers, historians, entrepreneurs, and chefs in a science class. They bring many different perspectives from their wide ranging life and work experiences, and through their perspectives I see my course material in new and insightful ways. They are smart, determined, energetic, competitive, and questioning. They demand a lot of themselves and of me. They challenge me and I challenge them. I try my best to respond and I know they do too. We are all better because of that."

GS Alum Jacquie Wayans
Jacquie Wayans '08

Hometown: Bronx, NY
Major at GS: Literature-Writing
Path to GS:

  • Singer/choreographer/director
  • Working mother
  • Children's education advocate

"I am a single mom of three who used to live in one of the poorest economic sections of the Bronx. In my quest to secure strong public schools for my kids, I ended up motivating and teaching other parents how to do the same. However, as I spoke to students and encouraged them to seek the best for themselves, I realized that I had not done that for myself. So, after prompting from my office director, I applied to the School of General Studies and am soundly on my way to becoming a true role model for my children and hopefully all NYC kids."

GS Alumnus Thomas Westphal
Thomas Westphal '09

Hometown: Forest Row, East Sussex, England
Major at GS: Psychology
Path to GS:

  • Waldorf graduate
  • Actor
  • Gemologist

Today: Thomas is employed at Tiffany & Co.

"When I was 14, I played the lead in my high school’s production of Bye Bye Birdie—I wore a gold lamé suit, and all the girls loved me. That’s when I fell in love with acting. I studied at Bennington College and then came to New York to professionally pursue my craft while working a day job in the diamond district. After six years, although acting and diamonds were both rewarding, I realized that I wanted something more, which I hadn’t found yet. That’s why I decided to go back to school—right now I’m studying developmental psychology and interning at Columbia-Presbyterian in the same field. I plan to attend business school after earning my bachelor’s degree and look forward to combining what I’ve learned from diamonds and acting with my studies in psychology to create a meaningful career that I can be proud of."

GS Alum Irena Wolner
Irena Wolner '08

Hometown: Varena, Lithuania
Major at GS: German Literature and Cultural History, Comparative Literature and Society
Path to GS:

  • Born in Soviet Lithuania
  • Motorcycle accident helped me meet my husband, an American GI
  • Moved to New York City with a suitcase, a bicycle, a newborn son, and the determination to finish my degree

“Growing up in Lithuania during the Cold War, I didn’t really know what freedom was, a fact I learned quite dramatically when Soviet troops attacked my country’s only TV station in the middle of the evening news. The first boy I ever kissed was killed in the fighting that ensued that day. After that, I realized wanted to experience real freedom and ran away to Germany, where I eventually worked for Lufthansa and traveled the world. I also met my husband, an American GI, and moved with him to New York. I decided to return to school because I know that when I graduate, I’ll have an education that will grant me the freedom to do anything – and that’s something I can be proud to share with my son.”