Class of 2017 Celebrated at 70th Anniversary Class Day Ceremony

The School of General Studies celebrated the Class of 2017 at its 70th anniversary Class Day ceremony on Monday, May 15. Dean Peter J. Awn, who has served as dean for 20 years and will be stepping down after this academic year, opened the ceremony by welcoming the 585 graduates, more than 1,800 guests, faculty, and administrators.

May 27, 2017

“The creation of GS 70 years ago represents a milestone in the evolution of undergraduate education at Ivy League universities,” Awn said. “The presence in the classroom of both traditional and untraditional students enhances significantly the quality of intellectual discourse among students and faculty, and makes the Columbia undergraduate experience unlike that at any other Ivy League university.”

The Class of 2017 embodies the term “untraditional.” Graduates range in age from 20 to 67, and hail from 31 states and more than 49 countries. Thirty-five percent of all graduates are new Americans and international students. This year’s class also includes 102 U.S. military veterans—the largest cohort to graduate from an Ivy League university since World War II.

“There are two major factors that make GS unique,” Awn said. “First, we actively recruit students who have taken an untraditional path and mainstream them fully into a traditional and rigorous undergraduate program. Second, we are the incubator for innovative dual and joint degree programs that offer students a unique opportunity to engage with cutting-edge international education.”

Among the crowd were 25 graduates from the Joint Program with List College of the Jewish Theological Seminary, 61 graduates from the Dual BA Program between Columbia University and Sciences Po, and 11 graduates from the Joint Bachelor’s Degree Program between City University of Hong Kong and Columbia University.

Personally, I can testify to [Dean Awn] having had profound influence on the development of General Studies and the University. Truly profound. But what defines Peter as dean is his utter devotion—his love, really—of you: the students of General Studies.

Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University

University President Lee C. Bollinger spoke next, and stressed not only the importance of the mission of the School of General Studies, but the inherent value of pursuing a nontraditional path. He went on to say a few words about Dean Awn’s tenure.

“For two decades, he has led—but more importantly, created—this extraordinary institution. Personally, I can testify to his having had profound influence on the development of General Studies and the University. Truly profound. But what defines Peter as dean is his utter devotion—his love, really—of you: the students of General Studies,” Bollinger said.

Class Day Keynote Speaker Julia Bacha ‘03, Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, Guggenheim Fellow, and the creative director at the nonprofit Just Vision, emphasized how different her personal and professional life would look were it not for the existence of GS, as she would not have been able to pursue a liberal arts education in her home country of Brazil.

She encouraged graduates to recognize a shared and urgent responsibility to drive what the world pays attention to, describing attention as a valuable and finite currency that shapes the development of the world around us.

Choosing where we place our attention is one of the most political acts one can take. By choosing the way we look at the world, we can change it.

Julia Bacha, 2017 GS Class Day Ceremony Keynote Speaker

Bacha continued, illustrating how this phenomenon has shaped the way the world views the conflict between Israel and Palestine. While visiting the region to work on her first film, she realized that while a lot attention was being paid to the region, it was the wrong kind of attention—with the media focusing on violent actors and failed agreements, while civilians working to end the occupation and conflict through civil disobedience went unnoticed.

“Attention is a currency—valuable and finite. But what we sometimes fail to remember is that this currency is one of the most powerful forces shaping the world today…Choosing where we place our attention is one of the most political acts one can take,” Bacha said. “By choosing the way we look at the world, we can change it.”

In her address to the Class of 2017, Salutatorian Rozanne Gooding Silverwood described how GS—and a medicine walk she took in Riverside Park—helped her regain a lost love of writing.

As a result of several struggles her children were experiencing, including a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, Silverwood simply stopped writing, feeling that words no longer held any meaning.

She eventually decided to apply to GS, and found that the rigor and pace of her classes gave her relief from the devastation she was experiencing in her personal life, referring to homework as “sacred medicine.” However, when it came time to begin working on her senior thesis, the feelings of self-doubt returned. That’s when she decided to take a medicine walk, which she hoped would provide guidance.

“I spied a couple of red-tailed hawks. As soon as I saw them, one hawk leapt off the ledge, and with wings tucked in a glorious freefall as if I were some sort of delicious prey, she dove straight at me…suddenly, in a spectacle of avian grandstanding, the hawk opened her wings and swept right over the top of my head. And when I turned around to see where she’d flown, I found her perched on a tree branch right behind me. She looked directly at me as if to say ‘woman, there is no good reason why you should not be writing with the same mastery that I fly.’ I went home and began to write with a fearless intensity,” Silverwood said.

Silverwood graduates summa cum laude with a degree in cultural anthropology with a focus on Native American studies, and completed her senior thesis on “The Indigenous Uncanny: The Erasure and Resurgence of Chickasaw Identity,” an ethnography concerning the efforts of her Chickasaw ancestors to preserve her family's indigenous identity. She was also inducted into to the GS Honor Society and Phi Beta Kappa

“Certainly, this honor of salutatorian obligates me to keep writing, but more importantly, I hope to never again forget what it feels like to fly,” Gooding said.

Following Silverwood’s speech, Jesse Dean ’08, Co-Chairman of the General Studies Alumni Association, presented the Alumni Key Award to Erin Giventer for academic achievement and outstanding service to the School, and Justin Nathaniel Carter ’14 presented the Campbell Award to Franklin Forbes for exceptional leadership and Columbia spirit.

Upon the presentation of the 2017 degree candidates by Dean of Students Tom Harford, Dean Awn introduced Class of 2017 Valedictorian Colin Valentini.

“Colin is a proud veteran of the United States Marine Corps, where he attained the rank of corporal. He served in combat in Afghanistan as a vehicle commander for a mobile assault platoon. We would have to go back to the time of the post-WWII GI Bill to identify another occasion on which a military veteran was valedictorian,” Awn said.

In Valentini’s valedictory address, he explained how his decision to join the Marine Corps after graduating from high school set him on a path to discover the direction he wanted his life to take.

“There was no romance about my deployment to Afghanistan. But perhaps I learned even more important lessons about what it means to be part of a team, and care for the Marine next to you more than you care about yourself. These lessons stayed with me even as I transitioned out of the military,” Valentini said. “Once out of the Marine Corps, however, I was faced with the same question. What should I do next?”

We would have to go back to the time of the post-WWII GI Bill to identify another occasion on which a military veteran was valedictorian.

Peter J. Awn, Dean of the School of General Studies

The Marine Corps had taught him to seek out excellence and set challenging goals for himself, but he felt that no serious advancement would be possible without a college degree. He decided to apply to GS, where he enrolled in an introductory precalculus course.

“I learned as much as any other service member about discipline, teamwork, and perseverance, but had forgotten equally as much about high school algebra, geometry, and trigonometry,” Valentini said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but that course would prove to be the most important and influential I would take here.”

This course awakened a curiosity that he had not previously been aware of, and provided an outlet to answer a question that ceaselessly recurred in his mind: “Why?”

“I found that mathematics provided the means to search for fundamental truths that made a difference in my life. For you, it may be art, or English, or biology, or theatre. It could be a centuries-old academic discipline or a product of the last few years. It took me a long time and a very unconventional path before I stumbled upon what made me curious, but it has been a guiding light ever since,” Valentini said.

Valentini graduates summa cum laude with a degree in applied mathematics. He was also inducted into the GS Honor Society and Phi Beta Kappa. Upon graduation, he will join the team at Goldman Sachs, where he will be working in their credit risk analytics group.

“Congratulations to the graduates, your families, loved ones, and friends. You embody, in a spectacular way, the mission of GS and Columbia. I hope you will stay involved with your Columbia family for many years to come,” Awn said.

This year’s graduates join a variety of industries, including the arts, finance, law, and health care, where they will work for organizations such as McKinsey & Company, Google, the National Institutes of Health, Morgan Stanley, the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and Microsoft. Many will pursue advanced degrees at institutions including Princeton, Harvard, Sciences Po, MIT, and the London School of Economics. 

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