“GS is a place where everyone is unique in their own way,” said Michael Wedd, a current student at the college.
He admits he is no exception: in the upstate New York farmhouse where he grew up, he was forbidden from watching TV, surfing the internet, listening to most radio stations, or going to school. He taught his siblings and himself subjects like chemistry and biology with textbooks he found around the house, and learned to play piano by listening to a family radio that was always tuned to a classical music station.
“I hated not knowing things,” he said while describing the thirst for knowledge, which drove his self-education. Becoming a concert pianist in his early teens, he would practice piano for up to eight hours a day and study in the time left over. He pored over textbooks and conducted science experiments with his brothers, moving onto a new subject only once he had exhausted the last. He excelled in piano and music composition, training with a top Russian concert pianist and performing around the Northeast.
But by 21, a hand injury had ended his musical career. He was, in his own words, “in a low place” as he left his upstate New York home for Brooklyn to work in construction.
But a few months later, he found out about GS from a stranger on the subway who encouraged him to apply. “I can’t do that,” Wedd said when she first brought it up, telling her about how he lacked conventional transcripts and had never had a formal education.
But over time she convinced him. He applied to GS with the second essay he had ever written in his life, the first being for his GED. Now, he is set to graduate as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, one of the most prestigious honors for undergraduates in the United States, with a 4.04 GPA.
“I thought I was going to fail that first semester,” he said of coming to GS without a formal education. “I studied maybe 12 to 18 hours per day my freshman year.” He was amazed by the “all-you-can-eat buffet” of knowledge at Columbia and has taken full advantage of it, taking courses in subjects ranging from philosophy to computer science while majoring in cultural anthropology, which he loves for its broad scope.
However, he has focused on one area both in class and outside of it: autism. Wedd has personal connections to the condition, and last August he cycled 1,000 miles alone across Alaska to raise thousands of dollars for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “That was crazy,” he said while explaining he still had lingering trench foot from the rainy experience. He also started the first autism-focused student group at Columbia, Spectrum Collective.
“I wanted to stop ‘silo thinking,’” Wedd said, referring to a phenomenon in which different disciplines fail to communicate about the same subject matter. He has succeeded in bringing together students and faculty from various research areas—biomedicine and teaching are two common ones—and lets the group’s members choose their own ways to be involved, be it online discussion, meeting attendance, or anything else they may suggest. He hopes the group’s dynamic format will help it continue to thrive long after he graduates this May.
Wedd is also making a splash in Columbia’s Department of Music, where he studied the intersection of music therapy and autism. He recently organized a symposium of leading experts on the subject. His thesis, “Autism and Music in Other Words,” uses field notes from his time volunteering at The Music Settlement in Cleveland to explore how queer theory can be applied to neurological differences such as autism. He proposed the term “neuroqueer” as an alternative to traditional autism diagnoses and “neurodiversity,” a new movement with growing popularity in autism research. Many of the ideas he explores contradict the current leaders in the field, yet he presented his thesis to those very same leaders during the symposium—and asked for their feedback.
The hundred or so people listening, including the experts, admired and respected not only Wedd’s research but also his courage as an undergraduate. “You are very brave,” said Dr. Michael Bakan, considered America’s preeminent authority on autism and music.
One of Wedd’s core tenets is that labels are dangerous. He explained, while discussing his thesis, how others often conceptualize those with an “autism” label as having certain qualities or attributes that they may not possess.
As a former concert pianist, self-educated Ivy League student, and long-distance cyclist, he certainly flouts any labels or pre-conceived notions himself. After graduation, Wedd will continue this nontraditional story while working for an emerging startup as a 2018 Venture for America Fellow.
“I’m really going to miss this place,” he said. “The interesting person at the party is everyone at GS.”