• Andrea Contreras

The Faces of GS

The particulars of the School of General Studies.

By Andrea Contreras


In the liminal space of Lucas’ Zoom screen, I saw that he was not sitting in his adolescent bedroom as I was. He was in a nursery: cradle in the corner, glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, pale green walls.


During my first semester at CC, I peered daily into the seemingly distant, middle-aged world that belonged to Lucas, to whom I’ve given a pseudonym. Sometimes, his wife would come into the frame to rest their baby onto his lap. He would participate in our breakout room conversation while absentmindedly stroking the head of his child. On the other end, my awkward cap-and-gown photos were fresh off the printing press.


My knowledge of Lucas’ life would never extend beyond this casual observation. I often speculated about his past—was he a Navy Seal? Professional chef? Former Broadway star? The ambiguity of the “nontraditional General Studies student” Columbia boasts went unexplored by my classmates and I, substituted for a vague admiration for his intrepid curiosity and frequent participation. Unlike me, Lucas had little skepticism for the course material, read every text with zeal, and shared candidly. The semester ended, and while I had heard the cries of Lucas’ child and noted his opinions on postcolonial Algeria, I was no more clear on General Studies, the project for adult education, or what had encouraged him to return to school with a bunch of abashed 19-year-olds like me.


Every semester brought new grown-up faces, and each looked different. The more I puzzled over how to describe and qualify the non-traditional GS student body, the more I realized that they are a population that is uncategorizable; anything but general. Here are five such stories from older adult GS students.


ANTHONY


I met Anthony in Joe Coffee in Dodge Hall the Tuesday before spring break. He speaks quietly in a subdued Auckland accent, and wears Air Forces with highlighter blue and orange laces surely inspired by Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Customizing shoes is a hobby he likes to share with his children, who are 12, 9, and 6 years old.


Now that Anthony is a student at GS, he has new activities to share with them: homework on the dining table, conversations about history. Inspired by Ancient Civilizations, a class taken to fulfill the Global Core, he’s currently on a mission to direct his oldest son’s attention to the Egyptians and Nubians in his social studies class. The academic subjects he contemplates with his children range from archaeology to war and the collapse of the Soviet Union.


“It’s like having a conversation with a friend,” he told me.


Anthony began to pursue his first degree, in part, as a statement to his children: It’s never too late to do anything or to learn something new. In part, of course, it was for himself. After years of traveling and photographing the world, starting his own digital production company, raising three children, and getting a divorce, the 47-year-old wanted to try something different.


Growing up in New Zealand, young Anthony had no particular love for school. The allure of skateboards and cameras always held more sway than that of chalkboards and pencils. Once he secured a job, no social pressure from those around him kept him from dropping out of high school. Decades later, as his children were growing up, Anthony began wondering how to emerge from the domestic sphere. It was then that Anthony heeded his therapist’s advice to return to school. What started off with an academic writing class at Harvard’s Extension Program became deep exploration of language, leading to the linguistics degree he is pursuing here. Anthony is now one of the many proverbial Front-Row Question-Askers. He takes any class he’s interested in. He’s invited his GS classmates over to barbecues at his apartment. He goes to Mel’s.


Although he doesn’t have a clear path for post-graduation, Anthony tells me that education inspires every aspect of his life—and leans in to explain just how. He is an artist, he says, who feels inspired by the flaky blue paint on a building, and now he wants to paint the world.


Illustration by Taylor Yingshi

VEENA


Veena’s birthday was the day after we spoke. She was turning 30, and the guest list was overflowing: her University Writing professor, her mom friends, her 20-year-old friends in Barnard and CC savoring their first semesters of independence. She hadn’t expected to make any friends, so it was all a welcome surprise. Some she met from her brief stint at the Columbia Spectator, while others unceremoniously slid into her DMs (a result, perhaps, of her seamless ability to blend in as a CC student).


The birthday party would be a merging of her “double life.” In one, she’s at the doctor with her son, talking to her landlord, rushing to her daughter’s school. In the other, she’s competing for unpaid internships against 20-year-olds, listening to CC students’ Hinge stories, dealing with a midterm grade, talking to The Blue and White. Veena sometimes feels a cognitive dissonance in processing her two lives—or at least that’s what her psychology classes would call it.


Veena decided to major in psychology to understand her own experiences. She spent her childhood dreaming of a career in theoretical physics while being nurtured by a cancer-researcher mother and first-generation Indian family. Pregnant at 20, Veena dropped out of college to get married and abide by a traditional notion of feminine domesticity. Her decision to retreat into matrimony was not a sixth-wave post-feminist statement on motherhood, but the result of a period of intense psychological manipulation that culminated in a conversion to Mormonism. “It’s a lot,” she warned me a few times, between hesitant laughter. I didn’t doubt her.


In her era of pious domesticity, Veena was perpetually restless. She wanted to leave the house, volunteer, study, work. As soon as her husband moved out, Veena enrolled in community college—which eventually led her here. Initially, she struggled with guilt over the periodic absences from her Connecticut home that her academic pursuits required. Now, however, these feelings are overrun by a feeling of pride in her accomplishments, and the knowledge that she wasn’t meant to be a stay-at-home mom. She definitely doesn’t look the part, with her small but bold tattoos decorating her arms, her dry, witty sense of humor, and an unapologetic openness. Veena’s daughter has a Columbia sweatshirt she is obsessed with, a symbol of the impact Veena’s education has had upon her children. Before, Veena’s daughter used to talk about growing up, getting married, and having kids; now she talks about going to Columbia like her mom.


Veena doesn’t “do things halfway.” When she’s in, she’s all in. She’s writing a book right now, a deal made after an online reader serendipitously sent her Spec article to an editor. She’s raising three children, she’s graduating this summer, she responds to DMs, and she’s wearing sequins to her birthday party.


PHIL


Phil’s favorite word is fuck. He swears in a bold Italian-American accent, lending his speech a boisterous enthusiasm—a quality that rushes to the forefront when we talk about GS. He told me it’s because he’s a Leo. It makes perfect sense to me—Columbia’s mascot is a fucking lion, after all.


He is sitting in his recording studio on Zoom with me. His location matches his look, which is evocative of a Sicilian DJ Khaled. He pauses occasionally to take a puff of pain medicine, a necessity after a nearly fatal accident in 2018. Last semester was his first semester back at Columbia since his medical leave, and his first time navigating campus as a disabled individual. He is taking it as it comes.


At 40, Phil still wants to be a celebrity. He almost became one, during a lucrative career in sound and audio engineering that landed him Hollywood award nominations. His trade school certification in audio engineering came after he heard a radio ad on Hot 97. A self-described asshole/football player/hotshot/bully/troubled-teen high schooler, he found the program a welcome alternative to college. The audio world was fun, but maybe too fun. He wasn’t ready for the high-intensity party scene in the post-production world, and he was soon caught in a whirlwind, costing him his job and sending him to rehab. Phil told me that in the process of getting sober, he identified that a major driving force of his addiction was a feeling of existential dissatisfaction: He felt that he had never reached his full potential. Going back to college was a way of proving to himself that his intelligence and potential wasn’t confined to his past.


Lingering over his degree, too, is Phil’s knowledge that his industry peers witnessed his fall from grace. Through gritted teeth, he tells me that he wants to make up for these mistakes and enter that world again. This time, he would be picking up where he left off, now sober, mature, and bolstered by the academic preparation and distinction that Columbia could give him.


Phil explained that a consequence of addiction is that you remain emotionally stunted at the age you start using. At Columbia, Phil turns this into a good thing: He feels he has the maturity of a 23-year-old, which makes him approach the classroom environment with a youthful abandon and an open mind. Gone are nearly all traces of Phil’s former centrism, thanks to a riveting sociopolitical atmosphere that challenged his beliefs. Although he remains firmly opposed to Marxism, Phil says that Columbia has converted him, in the words of his family, into a certified snowflake.


MARIO


I met Mario in my creative writing class. He is the oldest person there, and probably the most talkative. Mario sits in the front of the class, next to our professor; he asks thoughtful questions, he contemplates the material unpretentiously, and isn’t afraid to open up to the class. A few weeks ago, he told us that he had reached his 12th anniversary of sobriety. Surrounded by strangers, he expressed a profound pride at overcoming the alcoholism his father and grandfather had passed down.


Mario told me in private that his decision to get sober was due to “grace from God.” In a drunken tirade one night, he professed to the sky a need for help (fashion photographers have a flair for the dramatic). And lo and behold, help appeared, in the guise of a man sitting behind him. The stranger was an alcoholic too, and was currently completing a 12-step program. Did Mario want to come with him to a meeting? Mario is now 41, sober, and ready to share his journey with the younger students in his class.


Growing up, school was a matter of socialializing—joking around with his classmates, learning about other people. He had a hard time engaging in course material. Once in a while, Mario still feels that he isn’t really cut out for school. He occasionally still feels like the poor kid from East Brooklyn, and finds himself wondering if academia is too self-congratulatory.


But when he forces himself to go to honors ceremonies, he relishes the accolades. He’s showing himself that he can be an honors student at 41, and that he could have been at 20, too.


Years in fashion photography makes Mario very personable, easily winning friends across GS and CC with his wide smile. So while Mario still interprets his position in school as a social experience, he does so in a different way. Now, instead of serving to entertain others, he feels he is in a position where he can mentor others. He can relate to the CC students who are struggling—with their coursework, with their personal lives—and shares the wisdom he’s picked up inside and outside the academy.


Before, Mario had always felt as if his life had been a collection of things that had just happened to him. Photography picked him, as if by chance. Alcoholism was embedded in his genetic chart. Even sobriety, to him, was simply the stars aligning. Education is, perhaps, Mario’s first deliberate choice.


BILL


Bill’s mom told him that he would never go back to school. He assured her he would.


At 58, Bill is taking introductory classes towards a second bachelor’s degree. His first degree, in computer science, set him up for a decades-long career as a software engineer—but physics has always been his true passion. Before enrolling in GS, he had been trying to teach himself the material through textbooks and Brian Greene’s lectures on Youtube. But he decided he needed a classroom and a professor to fully master the material. Bill is still working full time while taking one class per semester, meaning that it might take him at least another six years to complete his degree. He says it’s going to be a while before he can meaningfully contribute to new physics research. But he’s not in a hurry.


Bill’s college experience the first time around was painfully rushed. He was preoccupied with paying off his car, getting a job. College was a means to a degree, which in turn was a means to a career—all of which needed to be squared away in the shortest possible span of time. GS, for Bill, is a different world, one defined by an appreciation for the entire academic project: the process of learning. In quintessential physics-major fashion, Bill tends to think about time and experience in transcendental terms: He now insists that “academia is more the real world than what they call the real world. It’s actually truly the pursuit of truth, knowledge and understanding.


It doesn’t feel strange to him to be older—he feels like he fits in. He can’t sprint as fast as he used to, and he doesn’t idolize Ronald Reagan anymore, but he’s “young again and back in college.”


Bill’s nephew is a sophomore in high school, an athlete who aspires to basketball stardom. Bill doesn’t talk to him too much about college, because he doesn’t want to “chew his ear off.” But the other day, Bill got an email from his sister-in-law: His nephew wanted to study physics, just like him. He hadn’t expected his nephew to be paying so much attention to his experience, assuming the two occupied entirely different realms. Of course, this knowledge makes Bill swell with pride. Wow, he thought, I wonder where that came from.

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