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General Studies Plays Vital Role for Columbia and GS Alumni

By Caroline Ladhani

Susan Feagin

Applications for admission were up 16 percent this spring in the School of General Studies (GS), Columbia 's college for returning and nontraditional students -- those students who have interrupted or postponed their education for at least one year. The increase is not surprising, as across the nation the face of the typical college student is changing. A rising percentage of undergraduate students now fall into the nontraditional category. In fact, a recent survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that nearly 40 percent of college students are 25 years of age or older, up from 23 percent in 1970.

For more than 50 years, GS has been dedicated to attracting and serving talented men and women who have taken nontraditional paths to higher education. Founded in 1947, GS is the only Ivy League institution to admit nontraditional students into the regular curriculum with other undergraduates. GS applicants, who come from a variety of educational and career backgrounds, are subjected to a rigorous application process that takes into account traditional measures of academic success including test scores and grade point averages, but also gauges through dialogue (be it essays or interviews) an applicant's potential to succeed at Columbia. Applicants to GS are held to the same academic standards as all other Columbia undergraduates, and must show depth of commitment to a demanding program of study.

Once enrolled, GS students face more than the usual challenges of the traditional undergraduate: often they are juggling a full-time job or parenting. For these reasons, GS offers a supportive community with regular academic counseling, tutoring, study skills workshops, online support groups and brown bag seminars.

Despite the challenges that nontraditional students face, GS students often go on to successful careers after graduation. One of America 's best-known chefs, Jacques Pepin, '70, and New York Times journalist R.W. Apple, Jr., '61, are just two of many GS alumni who have traveled a path to great accomplishment. So it's hardly surprising that even here at Columbia there are two GS alumni who have achieved considerable success; they hold senior-level administrative posts.

Susan Feagin, now Columbia 's executive vice president for development and alumni relations, was a GS student from 1968-74. In 1968, she married her Tyler , Texas , high-school sweetheart, who was a junior at Columbia College . Just before coming to New York , Feagin had finished her freshman year at Baylor University . The School of General Studies made it possible for her to work full time while finishing her own degree.

At the time, Columbia 's campus was still simmering with political activism. "You felt you were in the middle of some extraordinary social change that was affecting the whole country," she said. "I decided to be a sociology major, and so everything I was reading and studying I could look at in the light of what was happening politically right under my nose."

For three years, Feagin worked on campus as a secretary in the president's office. During this period, she felt as though she was "living in a laboratory." She watched the social dynamics she studied in her sociology classes play out in real life. "I had this fascinating, bifurcated life," Feagin said. "During the day I came to Low Library -- the establishment -- and then on the weekend I might be on the bus to Washington to protest the Vietnam War. I was able to live in both worlds and to get a little sense of what separated the two.

I have very warm and grateful memories about how I was welcomed at GS and treated with respect. Thanks to GS, I got a great education and found a professional niche in university development along the way."

John Lenzi

Nearly two decades after Feagin began her GS courses, John Lenzi, the man who would become Columbia 's university registrar and executive director of student information systems, set foot on the campus as manager of information technology, simultaneously setting out to finish his degree through the School of General Studies .

After high school, the Spring Valley , Ill. , native planned to become a film editor. He enrolled in a technical film school in California . But he soon switched gears and joined a computer conversion company in 1977. In 1979, he decided to move to New York . Within three weeks he had a job on Park Avenue . And by the following year, he was working for ADP's brokerage division on Wall Street, where he stayed for seven years. "I was being groomed actually to move up to the VP level," said Lenzi. But soon, he began to experience burnout with the high-pressure Wall Street job.

At that point a friend suggested the idea of working for a not-for-profit. Lenzi found a position advertised in The New York Times job section -- an information technology operations manager job at Columbia . During the interview process for the job, he decided he would go back to school and finish his degree.

That was then. Now, as registrar, with a bachelor's, master's and all-but-dissertation Ph.D. work at Columbia behind him, Lenzi observed that more and more students are following a nontraditional path to higher education.

"I think we are seeing an enormous shift in the population," said Lenzi, "and I think it's important that the Ivy League, and a place like Columbia , is represented in responding to that changing population."

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Published: Feb 20, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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