By Sharon Goldman
As a teenager growing up in a poor household in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush neighborhood, Loy Phillips had never even heard of Columbia University. “At my high school you’re trained to work at the supermarket or the drugstore,” she says. “The Ivy League was just a different world.”
Fortunately, the London-born Phillips managed to thrive even within the narrow realm of opportunity available to her after high school—which was especially tough since by age 23 she also had a baby to feed. She worked in retail and quickly moved up to management while trying to save up to return to community college, which she had previously attended but could not afford to complete. At that point in her life, a school such as Columbia University could not have felt farther away.
In 2002, however, she moved to Adam Clayton Boulevard and 112th Street, and while unpacking some boxes, she came upon Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B.” Inspired by Hughes’ own experience at Columbia in the 1920s, the poem discusses the problematic nature of identity for “the only colored student in my class” and depicts the route from Columbia to the Harlem YMCA. “It was serendipitous that I read it,” she says. “I made that five-minute walk every day through the avenues he described, and I felt if he could do it, I could do it. So I was inspired to pick up an application.”
What followed was a typical experience for scholars in the School of General Studies Program for Academic Leadership and Service (PALS)—a scholarship created in 1999 offering a special opportunity to students who might not otherwise be able to attend an Ivy League university. Phillips says she took a leap when she applied to GS; she was surprised to find out she had been accepted; and she was shocked even further when she was told she had received a full scholarship through PALS. “It was unbelievable. I was so thankful,” she says. “I feel so proud to be a fellow of this group.”
For the past seven years, PALS has made dreams come true for dozens of students who are handpicked to be part of this select group. No one can apply to become a PALS scholar; instead, applicants considered to be top candidates are identified during the admissions process, and recipients are then determined by the PALS Selection Committee which is comprised of officers from the Dean of Students and Admissions offices. Those who are chosen (there are around 15-18 students in the program at any one time) are typically first-generation college students and members of historically underrepresented groups with significant financial need and a demonstrated ability to succeed in a competitive academic environment. In addition, all PALS students have a record of community service that they wish to continue while at Columbia.
PALS replaced a similar, state-funded program that came with a variety of admission criteria too restrictive for the population the school wanted to assist. In the spring of 1999, GS Dean Peter Awn asked Associate Dean of Students Scott Halvorson to design and head a new scholarship program that would better suit GS’s unique population. Using the already existing models of the New York State HEOP scholarship and a small institutional program called Special Opportunity Scholarship (SOS), Dean Halvorson, in conjunction with Director of Educational Financing Skip Bailey and other administrators from the Dean of Students and Admissions Offices, developed a program that became PALS. Halvorson thought that fostering a sense of teamwork and community would be crucial to the new program’s success. For students coming out of an inequitable educational system, often with significant breaks in their education, financial support alone is not enough.
“They must be willing to trust and help one another because they can’t afford to begin feeling isolated or alienated,” Halvorson explains. “Advisors are not in the classroom with them, so peer support can make or break certain students.” Counseling from the administration can also assist those for whom the prospect of receiving a large scholarship and not having to worry about financing their education can be, ironically, overwhelming.
“It’s sometimes a double-edged sword,” Halvorson says. “There’s the initial happiness of receiving the scholarship, but that is often followed by a sense of ‘Am I worthy?’ Some PALS students get a B minus on a paper or test and then feel terrible, as if they’ve let everyone down. They haven’t, of course, but that feeling can become destructive if it isn’t checked.”
Before coming to GS, Halvorson spent eight years as a high school English teacher in a violent, gang-infested neighborhood in Long Beach, California. He is passionate about the program and committed to making the PALS students feel worthy and at home in Morningside Heights, because he knows firsthand how even capable students may find it difficult to envision attending a college like Columbia. He believes that unless one has lived or worked in an embattled community, it is often difficult to truly understand how hard it is for so many young people growing up there, even the brightest and most talented, to get out successfully and safely. “For many of these young men and women, simply to apply to a place like Columbia University is an act of moral courage,” he says. “To see them actually come to this great university, thrive, and graduate has been the most fulfilling experience of my professional life.”
Emilio Rodriguez, another current PALS scholar, knows about that kind of courage, as well as having faith and faith in oneself. After joining a gang and dropping out of high school at age 16, the Miami, Florida native eventually turned his life around and earned an associate’s degree at a community college. Then, after being accepted to the School of General Studies, he arrived in New York without any idea how he would pay for an Ivy League education.
“When you do things on faith, other things happen,” Rodriguez says of receiving the PALS scholarship. “Columbia felt like a calling for me, a higher purpose. I wanted to challenge myself and learn how to help others who are struggling in life.” The best part of PALS, he agrees, is the sense of camaraderie among the other students. “There are other groups on campus, but they don’t have the peer support that we have,” he says. “We really admire each other and we know each other’s stories. I’m humbled by the other PALS students and what they’ve been able to overcome.” Last spring Rodriguez was inducted into the GS Honor Society and served as a teaching assistant in the Columbia Economics Department, a position rarely given to undergraduates.
A sense of curiosity she did not have as a high school student in a blue-collar neighborhood in Orange County, California, as well as a desire to challenge her own belief system and tackle topics she knew nothing about, prompted fellow PALS scholar Adrienne to apply to Columbia in 2005. “College was never on my radar—it felt like something I couldn’t do,” she explains. “I never imagined that I would go to a private university.” She did, however, acquire an education—in life. She studied acting, traveled with rock bands, and held a variety of jobs including florist, receptionist, day care worker, and various positions in the entertainment industry.
When she applied to GS and was accepted, she was told that the dean wanted to meet with her. “I thought they were going to tell me there was a clerical error, and I wasn’t really accepted,” she remembers. Instead, there was good news—she was accepted into PALS. “I thought they were joking around,” she says. “Even now I have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that I have the opportunity to be of service and that I’ve received so much respect from the Columbia community.” Today, Adrienne is double-majoring in sociology and English. “All of a sudden I’m discovering a lot of capabilities and things I’m passionate about,” she says. “I might go into teaching.”
It is that kind of excitement that thrills Dean Leslie Limardo, who coordinates support services for all GS students and is someone the PALS scholars can approach if they need to vent, cry, or just talk. “I loved the PALS program from the start,” she says. “I felt this incredible energy and love, and I was hooked. They are a wonderful group.”
One of her favorite activities with the students this year, she says, was helping to organize the program’s annual No Limits conference, a one day program for city high school seniors that encourages students to apply to college. In the fall of 2000, Halvorson asked the PALS students to think about a community service project they could work on as a group. PALS student (now alumnus) Derrick Wilder (see sidebar on page 9) enthusiastically stepped up to this challenge and created the foundation for an event that has taken place every year since the first No Limits conference in April of 2001. The conference has become a profound way for PALS scholars to learn about leadership and share their experiences with high school students that may have the same feeling Phillips did when she first moved to Harlem—that Columbia is not a place for them. “It’s a powerful program and has been my favorite memory yet,” Limardo says.
At a “debriefing” after the most recent No Limits conference in March, many of the PALS students were moved to tears, Halvorson says. “We talked about how the day went, and it was this wonderful moment,” he explains. “The students grasped just what it was they had accomplished and what they had witnessed take place with the Harlem high school students. They also shared just how much the other people in the program meant to them. It was as powerful as you can get.”
To those in the PALS program, this feeling extends to their relationship to the administration, particularly with Halvorson and Limardo. “They are the heart of the program,” says Adrienne. “They are just not willing to let people fail.”
But to Limardo, it is the students that show how far PALS has come since its inception. “I think the biggest successes are our graduates,” Limardo says. “Our GS valedictorian three years ago was a PALS student, and many others have been leaders and have given not only to the Columbia University community, but to the larger community.”
Halvorson believes that the students in PALS are dramatic proof of how the human spirit can flourish when given the right opportunities. He recalls the story of a PALS alumnus, Frederick Hawkins, the product of a public high school in Louisiana so miserable that it was constantly under threat of closure due to lack of funding and the poor academic progress of its students. Frederick graduated from GS in 2004 and is now studying at Cornell for his master’s degree. “Students like Frederick and the other PALS scholars remind me that our flawed public education system can still change for the better,” Halvorson reflects, “if only through the extraordinary and often heroic efforts of the students themselves.” He thinks for a moment and then adds: “But it shouldn’t have to be so hard for them to get here. We still need to do more.”