By Allison Scola
Even as a child, Lizzie Valverde fiercely sought excellence. She wrote her first poems at four years old, and by first grade she had bound her first chapbook. With such conviction, her childhood dream to become a poet “when she grew up” seemed promising, yet somewhere along the way, well-meaning advisors dissuaded her, suggesting poetry to be a wonderful hobby, but not a viable career path. As a teenager, Valverde gravitated towards fine arts, and after spending a year as an exchange student in Peru, she withdrew from high school, obtained a GED, and dedicated herself to preparing a stellar portfolio to gain admission to art school.
Like the enthusiastic child poet she once was, the young artist threw herself into her work. She gained admission to the School of Visual Arts in New York, yet after one semester, Valverde concluded that she did not have the distinct talent required to build a life as a professional sculptor—she aimed to be extraordinary at whatever it was she set out to do, and art did not fulfill that charge. Soon after, she matriculated at Loyola University Maryland to study public relations; however, her lack of sincere interest for the subject prompted her to withdraw before earning her degree. While sorting through these disappointing setbacks and determining where next to put her energy, Valverde tended bar, tutored, and worked as a celebrity’s personal assistant.
In 2008, everything changed. At 28, she gave birth—two months early—to a baby girl. Her best-laid plans once again defied expectations. “Throughout my pregnancy, I was ‘perfect,’” explained Valverde. “Organic food … I gave up deodorant; no caffeine; no parabens. You name it … and she still came early.”
“She” was Estella, named after Dickens’ Estella Havisham. Valverde was adopted as an infant, and so her baby daughter became her first blood relative. It was an epiphany. “There she was, this person who looked quite a lot like me—an experience I had never once shared with anyone before. The connection was bigger than I ever could have fathomed,” Valverde said.
“Suddenly, my past and my roots and all of that mystery surrounding my identity were both heightened and simultaneously resolved.”
For the first six months while Estella grew physically stronger, mother and infant were medically quarantined to a single room in their home. “It sounds claustrophobic, but it was actually so beautiful and incredibly healing. Each of us grew stronger, entirely because of the other,” Valverde described.
Estella’s harrowing beginnings inspired Valverde to seek clearer direction for her life. At first, that took in the form of Lulu’s Armoire, a whimsical boutique featuring children’s apparel that Valverde co-owned with her mother. Later, the inspiration manifested itself in an application to Columbia University School of General Studies. “I wanted to make Estella proud,” Valverde stated, “to be the type of woman she might draw from when she grows up and begins to make her own life choices. For me, this meant righting a great regret of my life: pursuing my childhood dream of being a poet.”
While preparing her GS application, managing the store, and raising Estella, Valverde’s curiosity about her biological parents grew. She researched her adoption history, learning that she had half-siblings and uncovering the troubled pasts of her birth father, now deceased, and her birth mother, whom, just prior to applying to Columbia, she successfully contacted. Valverde had mixed feelings about what she learned, but found peace with knowing the story behind her adoption.
Once accepted and enrolled, while at GS, Valverde pursued a creative writing major with fervor. As in the past, she set her sights on being extraordinary. Her goal was to be class valedictorian. She sought courses with top faculty and contributed to the literary magazine Quarto as a writer and editor. She maintained over a 4.0 GPA, and became a member of the GS Honor Society. During the summer of 2014, she attended the prestigious Ashbery Home School of Hudson, N.Y., a poetry retreat facilitated by luminaries such as Tracy K. Smith, Adam Fitzgerald, and Timothy Donnelly. Having received a George Selden Scholarship at GS, she was able to focus on school and excel; she was finally pursuing her passion. In addition to poetry courses, Valverde found herself taking several film classes and out-of-genre writing courses, each of which helped her hone her craft.
As had been her practice since childhood, while at GS Lizzie Valverde strove for excellence—but this time, with invaluable support from family, mentoring by outstanding faculty and academic advisors, and significant scholarship support, she found her sweet spot.
“Columbia not only shaped my story, but it also completely transformed my ability to tell it,” said Valverde as she gushed about professors such as Dorothea Lasky and Alan Ziegler, whom she cites as champions of her work and credits with shaping her voice. Additionally, she savored courses with Nelson Kim, Marni Ludwig, and Adam Wilson.
In fall 2012, Valverde gave the introduction for faculty member Joseph Fasano at the annual Creative Writing Program reading. Also that evening, Assistant Professor Cris Beam, a specialist in memoir writing, presented her work on foster care and adoption. Having been adopted, the topic intrigued Valverde—as did the fellow student who introduced Beam, Katy Olson ’14. “She was very funny and lit up the room,” Valverde recalled.
The next semester Valverde learned that Beam would be teaching Literary Reporter, a nonfiction seminar. She considered enrolling, but because she had trepidation about delving into the world of nonfiction, she missed the first round of registration—the course was full. “On the first day, and one hour before the class, I was on SSOL [the online, student registration system] hoping a spot would open. I repeatedly pressed the Register button. Suddenly, a spot opened up and my registration went through. There was no time to look back or think it over!” Valverde, who lives an hour by car from campus in Hillsdale, N.J., “tore out of the house” to get to the class to guarantee her spot. When she arrived, there was a line out the door.
“I happened to sit across the table from Katy [Olson], who I recognized from the reading,” Valverde said.
As at the start of many courses, students were invited to introduce themselves and explain their interests in taking the course. As Olson listened to Valverde’s introduction, something clicked.
Immediately after class, she grabbed Valverde and pumped her with a series of “This is Your Life” questions. After a few minutes, the puzzle pieces of both of their infant adoptions fell together, and the two deduced that they shared the same birth-mother. It was dumbfounding. “So much changed in that one moment,” recalled Valverde.
Together Valverde and Olson, who graduated from GS in 2014 and is currently a student in Columbia’s MFA Creative Writing Program, embarked on a journey of discovery. Over the subsequent weeks and months, they waded through the “awkward, funny, beautiful, painful, and miraculous moments” that grow out of such a stupefying revelation.
This past May, Valverde and Olson’s remarkable discovery was featured in The New York Times. On Class Day, the two were reunited with their biological mother in front of an international press corps. It was a thrilling few days.
Although not named valedictorian, Valverde graduated at the top of her class and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. This fall, with her childhood dream of being a poet in sharp focus, she matriculated at New York University’s MFA program in creative writing. Most exciting perhaps is that she recently contracted with William Morris Literary agency to share her story—one of learning to embrace things out of one’s control and the beauty that that brings to life.
“When I was accepted to Columbia, I set out to be the very best,” said Valverde. “But I have since learned that perhaps being the best isn’t the most important thing. … Sometimes you meet your biological-half-sister in a Columbia classroom, and you realize the universe has other plans for you ... better to be unforgettable than to be superlative.”